It turns out that bias is the virus of NBA officiating, elusive and impossible to eradicate.
If you wade through former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz's report the league commissioned in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal, you'll find declarations that Donaghy was the only official who bet on games and that the league did not conspire to determine playoff results, two of the biggest concerns to come out of this whole mess. What it deals with less directly is the idea that an official's prejudice against a player or coach is an existing and ongoing problem.
"Because the potential for referee bias remains a threat to the integrity of the game, the League can do more, and we have made certain recommendations to that end," the report states.
The court case against Donaghy alleged that among the inside information he used to determine picks for games were "the interactions between certain referees and certain players and team personnel." In other words, if he knew an official was working a game and he also knew that official had it in for one of the players or coaches involved, he knew whom to put the money on. That was always the most alarming part of the story to me. It wasn't just that an official could gamble. It was that he could use other officials' ulterior motives for the basis of this gambling, that these long and widely held fears around the league were real and viable, all but confirmed by a referee himself.
One theme that emerges is the gap between the rules and their application, something that's almost impossible to close. There's discussion about the NBA's emphasis on uniformity of calls, from first quarter to fourth quarter and from game to game. The report goes into great detail about the review process officials undergo on a regular basis, both on site and by video and Internet. But it all comes undone in one passage, when field interviews produce answers that confirm all the old assumptions about makeup calls and superstar calls:
"Referees were also conscious of game circumstances and considered them when making judgments about calls. For instance, we have been told that some referees maintained an awareness of substantial imbalances in foul calls against teams. Also, if a referee recognized that he or his crew had made an incorrect call, a referee might whistle a 'make-up' call soon thereafter. Finally, some told us about giving consideration to the number of fouls called on 'players of consequence.' Before making a call that would put such a player in foul trouble, some referees would make sure the foul was a 'good one.'"
If the rules are open to interpretation, it's not a stretch to say they're open to manipulation. And what if there's nothing illegal at work but simple human dynamics, the inevitable likes and dislikes that come with interaction over a long stretch of time? What if it isn't even deliberate, but a subconscious action against an antagonist?
NBA commissioner David Stern was asked about bias during a conference call on Thursday and he didn't really answer the question.
Pedowitz addressed it, acknowledged it exists and said now it's up to retired Army Major Gen. Ronald L. Johnson, the league's new head of officials, to deal with it.
"We did hear from some of the team representatives that on occasion they feel that referees' egos are getting in the way of their play calling," Pedowitz said. "Again, there is a perception among some of the teams that that occasionally interferes with fair calling of plays. That's a perception that we'd like to try to eliminate going forward and we've recommended in our report that Gen. Ronald Johnson, who has been hired by the NBA to focus on the referee program and to try to manage it as effectively as he possibly can, be the person to whom the teams communicate concerns about this issue, so that he can address it, deal with it, and also try to ensure that the referees are getting a constant and clear message that they have to be disciplined about the rules.
"And, by the way, I'm not suggesting that the perception is necessarily valid or in all cases valid. But by the same token, if it's there, it should be dealt with."
How, exactly? Besides telling the general, the only other idea from the report was a vague one: "Analyses are also being conducted to help identify patterns consistent with referee bias for/against certain players and teams."
There's also a proposal for an anonymous hotline for all NBA employees to voice their concerns.
There are measures to address favoritism by cutting down on the interaction between referees and players and team employees, including a suggestion that referees disclose all of their off-court contact to help the league cut down on fraternization. The league already tried to discourage it, yet never took any disciplinary action (not publicly, at least) despite regular occurrences of referees asking players to autograph items for charity or friends. When a lawsuit alleged that Michael Jordan was introduced to a woman through a phone call placed by official Eddie F. Rush, I asked a league executive if that was cause for concern. I was told there was nothing that warranted action.
How would you like to be guarding Michael Jordan knowing that the ref set him up with a woman on the road?
If there's going to be any impact from this report, teams will have to know that not only are the complaints being heard, they're being acted on.
When the NBA suspended Joe Crawford for his over-the-top ejection of Tim Duncan, it was an acknowledgment that individual relationships could become bigger than the job at hand. Then Crawford was assigned to work Spurs games during the playoffs. And after Dick Bavetta's reputation was called into question in reports that emerged during the NBA Finals, guess who worked the very next game? Bavetta. It was the height of arrogance.
Bavetta was exonerated in the Pedowitz report, even if the fact that there's a section entitled "Dick Bavetta" isn't encouraging.
The bias issues require more league action than the gambling issues. The NBA's reaction to Donaghy was to "strengthen and clarify the ban on gambling on NBA games and the prohibition on sharing confidential League information with individuals outside the NBA," the report said. That wasn't really necessary. There are already laws that supersede the NBA's rules. They're what put Donaghy behind bars.
The league wants to better monitor the betting lines for signs of foul play. Las Vegas already does that. The NBA is concerned about its integrity, the sports books are concerned about their money and that's always protected more vigorously.
But the league is on its own when it comes to bias. It's time to take the claim seriously, to take action more aggressively.
The report largely portrays the officials as people who take their jobs seriously and want to get the calls right. That's what I've always found in my interactions with the refs both in and out of the arena. They are their own individuals, sometimes more at odds with the NBA honchos than any player, coach or owner -- hardly puppets complicit in carrying out a league agenda.
It's precisely because they are so independent, and have so much power to control a game, that their intentions need to be scrutinized. The report recognizes that. But it should not have taken the greatest criminal act committed upon the league for it to be finally acknowledged.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.