Corruption on the court is bad news for NBA   

Updated: July 20, 2007, 7:22 PM ET

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David Stern must yearn for the good old days, when the worst thing anyone had to say about the refs was that they didn't know what the hell they were doing.

Now, the New York Post reported that an NBA official will be indicted next week for allegedly shaving points at the behest of the mob (ESPN learned the official is Tim Donaghy, a 13-year veteran). That's a whole lot worse.

Incompetence is forgivable. Lots of us are bad at our jobs, so we can let a man slide for not being so great at his. Everybody's got to eat, you know? Plus, if someone is a bad ref, he'll be bad all the time. It's pretty wack when the refs are clueless, but the playing field is level.

Corruption, however, is a whole 'nother ballgame. It's bad enough when refs make themselves bigger than the game. But if they're peeking at the scoreboard at every turn and controlling the outcome of a game, then everything about the game is tainted. The spontaneity and uncertainty that make basketball so exciting is stripped, making it no different than wrasslin'.

Plus, nobody likes a cheater. Not even cheaters themselves.

For years, basketball fans have complained loudly about the quality of officiating in the NBA. Not the fun stuff, like a mascot handing a referee shades and a cane and asking if he knows the words to "Georgia on My Mind." The gripes were about whether the refs were hampering the game through incompetence -- whether their bad officiating was helping to create bad basketball.

Now, one ref's honest mistakes are under suspicion of being neither honest nor mistakes.

The NBA better do a great job of explaining how such a thing could happen. It must be embarrassing for Stern to have the world learn his league may have had a traitor in its midst, but someone from the outside had to tell him about it.

The NBA didn't sniff something funny and seek it out. Nope. The FBI stumbled upon Donaghy, who has resigned, while working on an organized crime investigation, then clued in the league.

How could this happen in a league that meticulously monitors referees' on-court behavior? Besides offering directives on what calls will be emphasized during a season, the NBA watches games very thoroughly. Everything a ref does, short of pull up his socks, is charted. After the game, it is determined whether each call and noncall was correct or incorrect.

Those evaluations aren't done just so the refs can improve. They affect officials' livelihood. Younger refs have to perform well because they're watched incredibly closely, and poor performances make it unlikely they'll stay in the league. Older refs don't catch as much heat, but they have to be concerned because the refs that get the most calls right are the ones that work the playoffs.

Everybody's got something to lose by slipping up, yet someone just might have slipped past the process.


You could argue that a crooked ref could affect the score by tilting calls that could "go either way" toward one team. Small problem -- outside of jockeying in the post and out of bounds, most calls are either right or wrong, according to the NBA, which has done its best to eliminate subjectivity from officiating. There are clear, enforced guidelines as to what is and isn't a foul, traveling or anything else.

And if those calls are wrong, there are people who are paid to make sure those guidelines are followed, and that everything is on the level.

That's where things get tricky for the NBA. If the league issued a statement emphatically stating that its officials are beyond reproach, that one of its refs is little more than a bad apple, it would be believable. Refs make good money, so it's not like they'll need to cavort with gamblers to make ends meet like the 1919 Black Sox. And while gambling addiction -- which the feds allege played a role in this case -- isn't an uncommon sickness, there's no reason to assume another ref is in the mob's pocket.

One ref is just one ref. But if there was another, how would anyone know?

Should the reports be true, Donaghy worked for a league that couldn't catch on to what he was doing. For all we know, the NBA couldn't tell if Donaghy was blind as Jose Feliciano or as connected as Jack Molinas.

In spite of having mountains of data on officiating, enough to produce a rebuttal to a scholarly paper about whether foul calls are affected by the race of the referee and the player whistled for the infraction, the NBA apparently couldn't tell something was awry.

That's all bad for the NBA, and probably worse than it would be for any other league. After decades of cockamamie conspiracy theories and a season that will be remembered more for tanking than playing, the last thing the NBA needs is anything that could give credence to any allegations of shady business.

Especially if the shade was brought on by negligence.

Absolutely, corruption is worse than incompetence.

But what's worse than both of them? Hiring someone corrupt and not knowing any better.

Bomani Jones is a columnist for Page 2. You can reach him here.


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Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pled guilty to federal felony conspiracy charges alleging that he passed along inside information on NBA games.

Donaghy also alleges that referees helped alter the outcomes of games during the '02 and '05 postseasons.

He was sentenced to 15 months in prison in July.


• Phoenix prosecutor wants federal files
• Donaghy's father says NBA must share the blame
• NBA's disclosure of own probe of officials on hold
• Adviser: Donaghy 'couldn't stop' gambling
• Two ex-classmates of Donaghy get prison time
• Report: Donaghy made calls to fellow ref
• NY prosecutors: Ref 'central' to NBA bet scandal
• NBA's restitution case vs. Donaghy questioned
• Donaghy lawyer: NBA trying to vilify ex-ref
• NBA ups Donaghy restitution figure to $1.4M
• Referee from alleged fixed game to work Game 5
• Ex-referee denies improper officiating claim
• Kings lament Donaghy's claims from 2002
• Report: Federal agents ask ex-ref about Bavetta
• NBA ref responds to Donaghy's 2002 claim
• 2002 playoff game at heart of allegations
• Stern allows some forms of gambling among refs
• NBA refutes report of refs disciplined
• Ex-ref Donaghy forfeits cash as part of plea deal
• Stern defends refs, vows to wait before punishing
• Ex-prosecutor counseled refs during FBI probe
• Attorney to lead review of NBA refs
• Report: Donaghy to talk about other refs
• Donaghy could face state charges
• Donaghy pleads guilty to felony charges | Docs
• Donaghy to plead guilty on betting charges
• Lawyer: Donaghy classmate expects indictment
• Congressman requests discussion with Stern
• Stern: Donaghy only referee believed to have bet
• Transcript of Stern's news conference
• Police called to Donaghy's home
• Report: Feds believe ref will cooperate
• Reports: NBA referee bet on games
• Mayor: Scandal won't hurt Vegas' NBA dream


• Donaghy's 2006-'07 game log
• Donaghy's 2005-'06 game log


• Munson: What happens on judgment day?
• Munson: Prison or no prison for Donaghy?
• Neumann: Nader feels vindicated
• Hill: NBA not helping their own case
• Stein: NBA has no quick fix for fixing charges
• Smith: Season shaken by Donaghy nightmare
• Munson: Donaghy's claims troubling for NBA
• Adande: Shine brighter spotlight on refs
• Sheridan: What next, Commissioner Stern? Insider
• Munson: Q&A about Tim Donaghy and the law
• Sheridan: 10 Q&A on the scandal
• Sheridan: Even Stern uncertain about latest crisis
• Stein: Donaghy questions and answers
• Drehs: Expert finds funny numbers
• Broussard: Refs say it's isolated incident Insider
• Katz: College officials fear lasting backlash
• Jackson: Sad, not shocked
• Drehs: Q&A with gambling expert
• Sheridan: Three big questions
• Simmons: One man out, one league in trouble
• Stein: Players react
• Sheridan: Team USA players react Insider
• Stein: Official nightmare for Stern
• Sheridan: The Donaghy file
• Adande: NBA's image takes another hit
• Jones: More bad news for the NBA
• TrueHoop: Two unproven beliefs remain so
• TrueHoop: Here's an early NBA fixer


• Betting expert: There's more to this story
• Observations on the Donaghy documents
• No specific mention of game-fixing
• Donaghy treated for gambling addiction
• Reaction to Donaghy's guilty pleas
• Donaghy details from the Justice Department
• Donaghy surrenders; what it all means


• Vote: Your reaction


• NHL: Frei: Keeping eyes open
• Soccer: European scandal awaits resolution


• Fan reaction puts Stern in hot seat