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Saturday, August 18, 2007

When Donaghy Starts Singing Will 20 NBA Referees be Sent Dancing?

This may turn out to be a bombshell, a dud or something in between but the New York Daily News reports that former NBA referee Tim Donaghy--who has pleaded guilty to two felony charges relating to illegal betting on NBA games--will be providing prosecutors with the names of as many as 20 NBA referees who have some level of involvement in gambling. It is not clear at this point the exact nature of the gambling activity that Donaghy will be allegedly describing. The best case scenario for the NBA is that Donaghy will be talking about a few referees who made some golf wagers. The medium case scenario for the NBA is that Donaghy will say that he knows of referees who are gambling in casinos. The worst case scenario for the NBA is--well, you can probably figure that one out for yourself.

I said a few days ago that we are approaching "the moment of truth for the NBA" but that "the 'moment' will be dragged out over a period of time." When Donaghy pleaded guilty on Wednesday and no other referees were implicated in betting on games the NBA could breathe a sigh of relief in that regard--but there is still unfinished business concerning what specific information Donaghy provided to his accomplices, how he did so without being detected, which games were involved and if Donaghy intentionally made bad calls in those games. When information about any or all of those things comes out, the NBA will face some more "moments of truth."

Meanwhile, anything that Donaghy says about the gambling habits of other referees could also prove to be very damaging to the NBA's credibility. Referees are expressly forbidden from doing any kind of wagering other than betting on horse races at the track during the offseason. That means, at least in theory, the NBA could fire any referee that Donaghy fingers, assuming that there is some kind of corroborating evidence. If 20 referees are involved then the NBA could be looking at replacing roughly a third of its referees. Perhaps most of the referees did not do anything that went beyond the kind of "friendly" wagers that are technically illegal but that many people engage in from time to time. The NBA could respond to something like that with a slap on the wrist fine and a warning letter placed in each referee's personnel file--but what if Donaghy reveals that there is a widespread culture of casino gambling among NBA referees? If that is the case, the NBA's credibility would take another hit, even if no illegal conduct is alleged or can be proven. No league wants its fans thinking that a substantial number of its officials have a tangible connection to gambling, which can quickly lead to being in debt, being blackmailed and then fixing games.

The problem for Commissioner David Stern, above and beyond whatever damaging information may come out, is that he is not in control of this process at all. Each of the other crises that he managed successfully--the drug problems in the 1980s, Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. Carlesimo, the brawl at Auburn Hills being three famous examples--were situations where he was completely in charge: he put a drug policy in place and he issued suspensions to players who conducted themselves improperly. Now he is dealing with a situation where he not only does not even know the full extent of the damage that has been done but he does not know when he will know; he is receiving information at the mercy of the FBI and the court system, something that he made painfully clear during his first press conference after the Donaghy story became public knowledge. Conspiracy lovers may assert that Stern knows more than he is letting on but I don't believe it. If Stern knew more and had the full power to act then he would have fired Donaghy on the spot instead of waiting for his resignation. Stern would have followed that up by explaining exactly what Donaghy did and did not do and then Stern would have outlined specifically how the NBA will prevent this from happening again. Say what you will about him, but Commissioner Stern knows how to get in front of a story and frame it in the most positive light possible--which suggests to me that the reason he has yet to do that regarding Donaghy is because he does not have enough information to take the kind of bold and decisive action that is his trademark.

If the Donaghy situation drags out into next season, as it almost certainly will, it will be interesting to see if it affects ticket sales and TV ratings. It is pretty apparent that for at least a decade many of Major League Baseball's biggest stars have been cheating by using illegal performance enhancing drugs but this has not negatively affected MLB's attendances figures. Will the misdeeds of one rogue referee lead to a bigger fan backlash than the actions of numerous cheating baseball players, many of whom have been caught in the act or admitted their misconduct?

posted by David Friedman @ 6:40 AM

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