Most scandals are shocking. But the NBA's new officiating imbroglio starring ex-referee Tim Donaghy seemed to surprise no one. Think of what it says about the state of officiating in the NBA: Fans skipped through the denial, anger, and bargaining stages of grief acceptance when news broke on July 20 that the FBI had been investigating NBA referee Tim Donaghy for allegedly placing bets on games he officiated and using his whistle to shave points during the past two NBA seasons.
For some NBA fans, officials on the take from mob bosses seemed more believable than general incompetence as a cause for the widely maligned state of officiating in professional basketball. All that's left now for most NBA fans is depression.
According to reports that developed after the scandal broke, the 40-year-old Donaghy allegedly fell in thick with organized crime figures when his own gambling problems spiraled out of control. Deep in both gambling and consumer debt-despite working a job that paid him $260,000 last season-Donaghy reportedly was approached by a low-level Gambino crime family associate who convinced him to use his position as an NBA referee to run a point-shaving scheme during the past two NBA seasons. In the scheme, Donaghy allegedly used his whistle to control point spreads, over/under sums, and perhaps even game outcomes.
In the competitive U.S. sports market, the dark cloud of game fixing hanging over the NBA could drive casual fans away to other sports. That is, if other leagues didn't have their own problems. Baseball suffers from a heightened concentration on the effect of steroids on the game as San Francisco outfielder Barry Bonds draws near to breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. The NFL faces protests from animal-rights activists and dog lovers after league star Michael Vick was indicted by a federal grand jury that accused him of helping to stage a large-scale dog fighting operation at his home in Virginia.
But basketball's problem is the most serious. NBA Commissioner David Stern reported that federal investigators alerted him about the probe on June 20. When the story broke, Stern made a statement. Two business days later, he spoke to the press. "This is the most serious situation, the worst situation, that I have ever experienced," said the normally emotionless commissioner. "I feel betrayed by what happened on behalf of the league."
The tough questions Stern faced from the press are the same ones fans are likely to be asking over the next few weeks. Why didn't the league see the warning signs? How can Stern be certain this will never happen again? Was Donaghy acting alone, or are there other NBA officials or players wrapped up here? Sometimes, Stern didn't have the words: "My understanding is that he's currently-that the current state is his-that he's-I have to choose my words carefully," he stammered. Later he said, "We think we have here a rogue, isolated criminal."
In the aftermath of any point-shaving scandal, the biggest task is always to convince fans that games are decided only on their merits. No funny stuff. This will be an especially difficult problem for the NBA, because even before the Donaghy scandal broke, confidence in officiating was at an all-time low.
And fans are quickly speculating whether Donaghy's actions might have cost their own teams. Many pointed to comments by ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons after Game 3 of the Phoenix-San Antonio series. "Congratulations to Greg Willard, Tim Donaghy and Eddie F. Rush for giving us the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far: Game 3 of the Suns-Spurs series," Simmons wrote in the midst of a highly controversial series that went to the Spurs, who eventually won the NBA championship. "Good golly. Most of the calls favored the Spurs, but I don't even think the refs were biased-they were so incompetent that there was no rhyme or reason to anything that was happening." And, yet, perhaps there was.