Tim Donaghy says NBA referees fixed playoff series in 2002 and 2005. David Stern says Donaghy is nothing more than a desperate liar. Problem is, the NBA has to deal with a much bigger issue if Stern is right than if Donaghy is telling the truth.
Think about it: Organized corruption has encroached on pro sports many times, but from the 1919 Black Sox to more recent match-fixing in Italian soccer, it usually wilts pretty quickly from exposure. Sooner or later, bookies talk or ex-girlfriends squawk. Betting lines move in suspicious ways. Bad guys argue about money, then rat each other out. Ambitious prosecutors put the pieces together, as they did to bust Donaghy.
But if the commish is correct that Donaghy was a lone rotten apple, what excuse is there for the horrible calls in Game 4 of the Lakers-Spurs series, or last year's Spurs-Suns series, or the Kings-Lakers in 2002? If NBA officials are as lousy as they seem without being on the take, that's a lot harder to fix than finding a few guys manipulating games. When Stern says he'll do everything to ensure "nothing like Donaghy will happen again," he's talking about refs engaging in criminal conspiracies. He should be more concerned about refs giving the Celtics a 38-10 edge in free throws at home in one game of the Finals, then giving the host Lakers a 34-22 advantage in the next.
Stern has long maintained that the NBA has the procedures in place to properly train and supervise its officials. "We have retained 30 observers, one at each of our teams' games," he said when the Donaghy scandal first broke. "They then review the game on tape. They then are … selectively audited by the group supervisors we have employed."
But Stern's system of overseers isn't working. For one thing, it can't act in real time: Joey Crawford's non-call on Derek Fisher in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals will stand forever. For another, each extra layer of experts in the NBA pyramid of supervision comes with its own problems. The league's top officials, for example, taking into account reports from the observers and supervisors and videotapes of every call refs made, thought Donaghy did a good job in 2006-07. They rewarded him with two rounds of playoff assignments. Some system!
Command-and-control structures just aren't well-suited to evaluating officials' calls. NBA games are complex, fluid systems that every observer will interpret differently. Micromanage zebras more closely, then stack two or three officials atop one another, and you'll get what the NBA gets: a mishmash of judgment calls.
Which is why if the NBA were really smart, it would ask 200,000 officials to review calls instead.
You see, when a batch of individuals needs a better grasp of complicated data, often the best option is not to rely on the advice of its smartest member but to tap the collective intelligence of the group. The stock market knows the value of companies better than any individual investor does. Horses posted at 4-1 odds win almost exactly 20% of their races. The audience on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire gets questions right 91% of the time vs. 65% for the "experts" called on lifelines. "If you ask a large enough group of diverse, independent people to make a prediction or estimate a probability, then average those estimates, the errors each of them makes in coming up with an answer will cancel themselves out," explains James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds.
So it's fans who should be deciding whether an NBA player has committed a foul, or stepped out of bounds, or put a foot over the three-point line. Yes, fans are biased. And, yes, they don't know all the rules. And, yes, there's no practical way to stop play dozens of times to let the guys in Section 400 render verdicts on fouls. But those are just logistical challenges. Imagine a large, broad corps of viewers knowledgeable enough to pass an officiating test, connected by cable boxes, able to vote on a small number of replays per game. As a group, you can bet they'd outperform any one witness, refs included.
I'm not saying you should hold your breath waiting for the NBA to test this hypothesis. But some sport sometime soon is going to realize the benefit of collecting the dispersed knowledge of its followers. Wouldn't it be a natural for arena football to let fans vote on close calls? Does anyone doubt boxing fans would render fairer verdicts than judges, if only they were given the chance?
In the wikified world we live in, leave it to Phil Jackson to make the best call: NBA officiating is too important to be left to NBA officials.