What next, Commissioner Stern?

August, 17, 2007
My ESPN colleague Mike Missanelli of 1050 Radio in New York broke the story today that former NBA official Tim Donaghy will sing to the feds that as many as 20 NBA referees took part in some type of gambling activity.

If true, those referees would be in violation of their contracts, which bar them from engaging in any type of gambling activity other than betting on racehorses during the offseason.

It remains to be seen exactly what type of gambling activity Donaghy is talking about, because there's a heck of a big difference between different types of gambling.

If the referees were wagering $20 on a round of golf or playing poker in a hotel room on an off night, that is certainly not criminal activity, and it's debatable whether it's a fireable offense.

If they were gambling publicly in casinos, that's a more serious matter -- but again it is not illegal. But if Donaghy alleges that referees were placing bets on other sporting events, perhaps even placing their bets by telephone, that could open a whole new can of worms.

Commissioner David Stern spoke on the issue of the league's prohibition against gambling by referees during his news conference in New York last month when the Donaghy story first broke, and there were two relevant quotes dealing with what the punishment would be if a referee was found to have engaged in any gambling activity (the league hired an independent investigator two years ago to look into reports that Donaghy had been seen at the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., but that allegation was not substantiated.)

I went back and looked at the transcript today, and Stern was not entirely consistent in saying what the penalty would be in the case of a referee who had taken part in gambling.

During his introductory remarks, Stern said: "The first thing that I would like to say is that our rules are crystal clear; that referees may not either gamble on our games; or, provide information to anyone about those games. We, you know, have a rule that says you're subject to discipline, which would most likely be expulsion from the league and the job."

Note the use of the qualifier "most likely."

Later in the news conference, Stern was asked a follow-up question to which he replied: "You are not permitted to bet if you're a referee. You're not permitted to bet legally and you're not permitted to bet illegally. The legal betting will cost you your job. The illegal betting, depending upon the context, may cost you your freedom."

Now, that's not exactly a vow to fire any referee who might be found to have gambled, but it's pretty darn close.

So now we'll have to wait and see how the commissioner reacts to any information the government provides to the NBA regarding what Donaghy is reportedly alleging.

Would Stern actually fire 20 referees if he found they had gambled on their golf matches? I have a hard time believing so. But if the gambling allegations are any more serious, it's going to be a dicey one for him at a time when he's trying to restore the public's confidence in the integrity of his sport.

The league office had no comment Friday other than to say they have received no new information from the authorities.

The head of the referees' association, Lamell McMorris, told me: "As far as we know, the misconduct was isolated to one individual, and we'll stand by that until proven otherwise. We'll review whatever information Tim Donaghy alleges, but as far as we're concerned, the only person whose conduct has been proven wrong is Tim Donaghy. We're dealing with truth, not hearsay, and the truth is that the only person who has pleaded guilty to any kind of wrongdoing is Tim Donaghy."


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