Over the past two years I’ve probably watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 NBA games. That number may be low, but we’ll go with 200. In pretty much every game, I saw a ref make a call that I absolutely did not agree with. We all have. Bad calls are a part of the game. Rules are subjective in basketball more than any other sport (unless we’re talking about the leaving the bench rule, that one’s black and white). If the reports are true, and Tim Donaghy was fixing games, it’s going to be really hard to let horrible calls roll off my back come next season. I don’t think I’m going to be alone, either.
Fans are close to the floor, players are physical, argumentative, and in some cases blatantly unstable. I don’t know what’s going to happen if Joey Crawford tosses Tim Duncan for smiling at him in a close game. It could be pandemonium. The shadow of doubt this scandal (whether proven true, or false) will cast on the NBA is going to take a long time to recover from.
There is a precedent for this in professional sports, Pete Rose in baseball and also Eugenia Williams in boxing. Rose was seen as a sick individual, and he was never charged with betting on games. It wasn’t a systematic problem in baseball. Plus, there was always the belief that Rose bet ON his team. In reality, this doesn’t make much of a difference, but when I think about it there’s an odd sentimentality to it that I can’t shake. OK, the guy bet on baseball, but betting on yourself to win doesn’t sound that wrong. Phil Mickelson does it all the time in golf. Obviously, the ramifications of a manager betting on his team to win could be drastic, so I’m not condoning it by any means. I’m just saying, it wasn’t this bad.
In sports, sometimes it’s a naive assumption that the umps and refs are impartial, but it is one we all make. Do refs and umps have personalities, play favorites, get influenced by home crowds? Absolutely. But the assumption has always been that they don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the game. A missed call wasn’t missed because the ref wanted (or maybe needed) a certain team to win, or cover the point spread. If this rumor is true, or even if it isn’t, that assumption will no longer be there. Referees will no longer be beyond reproach.
I hope, for the sport’s sake, that this isn’t true. Short of that, if it is true, I hope that Donaghy is where this scandal ends. If his isn’t the last referee’s name we hear, the NBA will be in serious trouble. The quickest way to ruin a sport is to take away its integrity. David Stern has policed players and coaches with an iron fist when it comes to questioning the refereeing of games. Fines were automatic. I wonder if he’s going to return any fine money for comments made about Donaghy’s blown calls.
Coming off the worst finals in the history of the league, David Stern and the league can ill-afford this scandal, but here it is. Mr. Stern has a long road ahead of him, and I’m not sure how he’s going to erase the shadow of a doubt from the minds of his players, coaches and most importantly, fans.
My biggest fear is that this whole thing is going to blow up and turn into a “Santa Clause isn’t real?” moment for all of us. Let’s hope it ends with Donaghy, I don’t want the NBA to turn out to be the WWE.