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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Commissioner Stern Modifies NBA's Stance About Referees, Prohibited Activities

When the Tim Donaghy scandal first came to light, NBA Commissioner David Stern declared at a press conference that the league had a no tolerance policy regarding referees and any kind of wagering: "The legal betting will cost you your job. The illegal betting, depending upon the context, may cost you your freedom." After further review, Stern has backed away from that all or nothing statement. The NBA has determined that a significant number of referees violated the letter of the league's strict--yet vaguely defined and haphazardly enforced--gambling prohibitions that banned them from even buying a lottery ticket.

Rather than disciplining all of these referees, Stern has elected to take one for the team, so to speak; after meeting with the Board of Governors, Stern explained during a teleconference what the NBA found during its investigation of its officials and what approach he and the league will take going forward regarding referees and betting: "Number one, the current state of the record is that Mr. Donaghy acted alone. There are no other referees that betted on NBA games. Number two, to the extent that we have a very broad rule that says you can't do anything could be read to include lotteries, golf, poker, including the poker game that's conducted annually at the NBA training camp. Someone has probably stepped across the line amongst all of our officials. But the reality is that about half of our officials have told us that they've been into casinos in the course of the last several years. And actually I have made a decision not to discipline them because I think the rule is overly broad. Of course, I take full responsibility for having been responsible for its enactment. I'm the CEO. I think its enforcement leaves something to be desired. So while we reenact--while we look at our rules completely and come up with a new set of rules, which I think is going to allow casino gambling at certain times of the year, I've decided that the better view here is to take my medicine and take it's not the right thing to do, to slap these guys on the wrists. I know they probably shouldn't have done it. They know they probably shouldn't have done it. But I'm not happy with the overall situation of an overbroad rule, spotty enforcement and reinforcement. We give the yearly pep talk about not gambling, and that's it until training camp next year. We've got to decide what to do. We've got to decide to do it firmly, fully throughout the year and have consequences based upon thorough follow-up, enforcement and detection."

Many Phoenix fans were very disappointed with Stern's letter of the law approach in suspending Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw after they left the bench during an altercation in game four of the San Antonio-Phoenix series. I have seen some comments questioning why Stern took such a hard line then yet is apparently letting the officials off of the hook now. The answer is that these are two completely different situations. The rule about players not leaving the area of the bench during an altercation has been uniformly enforced for more than a decade now. Remember Patrick Ewing idly strolling on to the court and being suspended during a New York-Miami series? He was even further away from the "action," if you will, then Stoudemire and Diaw were. This rule is an excellent rule that prevents any possible escalation of fights; the officials and coaches have their hands full trying to deal with the 10 players on the court and in the heat of the moment it is not a good idea to have several more players from both teams venturing into the fray. In contrast, the rules about referees and gambling were outdated and had never been consistently enforced, as Stern noted when he mentioned that the referees conducted an annual poker game at their training camp. Therefore, it makes sense to start over from scratch with some sensible rules. You can rest assured that Stern will enforce those new rules as zealously as he has enforced the league's other rules.

People who do not like the NBA and/or Commissioner Stern will use this as yet another opportunity to fire cheap shots, something that Stern anticipated with his comments about being "responsible" for the lack of enforcement of the previous rules and about taking "my medicine" for that. That is known as being accountable for one's actions. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who has presided over the Steroids Era in baseball and watched with his hands in his pockets--literally--as Barry Bonds broke the most hallowed record in sports, might want to look into that. David Stern realizes that not punishing referees for buying lottery tickets, playing poker or setting foot in casinos may look bad to some people but that it is for the greater good of the NBA.

During the same teleconference, Stern confirmed what many have suspected, namely that Stu Jackson's responsibilities will be diminished. Jackson will still be in charge of "basketball operations" but he will no longer oversee the NBA's referees. Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn will spend more time on the road training younger officials and he will no longer do his "Making the Call" television show on NBA TV. Stern also said that referee assignments will be publicly announced on the morning of game days so that this information will no longer be of potential interest to gamblers and he added that the league will take steps to publicly acknowledge incorrect calls; along those lines, I think that it is a mistake to drop the "Making the Call" show. Nunn did an excellent job explaining what referees see and he did not hesitate to admit when officials had messed up a call (which probably explains why Nunn and the show were not particularly popular with the rank and file officials). "Making the Call" is a perfect forum for the NBA to communicate to fans about the craft of refereeing. If anything, the show should be expanded, not canceled.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 PM

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