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Friday, July 20, 2007

The NBA's Worst Nightmare

I've frequently wondered when this would happen, and not if, and the reason simply is the disparity between the money that those who officiate the game make and those who play it (analagously, given the penury with which some judges are treated and the money the lawyers before them can make, I've had occasion to wonder not if, but when this type of controversy would hit a well-known court as well) as well as the fact that, well, people are human. Sorry, call me cynical, but human behavior is what it is -- flawed. I've once had a friend refer to an ad that said "name your top 10 at this profession -- one of them is an alcoholic." That doesn't mean, of course, that professional referees are prone to corruption. It's just that they're human, and, well, even with the best screening mechanisms a problem like this could occur.

Allegedly, of course, because no blogger or media member should "Duke Lacrosse" anyone who has been charged with a crime, even if he's Michael Vick and the accusations are hideous. I don't know whether the accused NBA ref is guilty or not, but the accusations -- as I've heard them piecemeal -- are upsetting. (The one good thing that happened today was that the media outlets named the ref who is under suspicion. Earlier in the day The New York Post and others said that an NBA ref is under suspicion, leaving the entire NBA fan base wondering which referee was the guy in the spotlight, thereby casting aspersions on all referees).

Americans love the integrity of their games. I recall a scene in the original "Longest Yard," when the former star quarterback (played by Burt Reynolds), asks the character named Caretaker why people hate him so much given that the prison population was a violent bunch. Caretaker said something like this: "What you have here are your robbers, arsonists and murderers, but you threw your own football games. Now that's un-American."

Ref likes to bet. Ref makes bad bets. Ref gets into guys who don't like that people owe them money and can't pay them back. The shylocks ask for something he can give them. Ref gives them outcomes of games, shylocks bet on those outcomes and win large dollars. Twenty, fifty large. Over many games. People can't keep secrets. Someone gets pinched, someone trades something juicy to a prosecutor eager for a headline (and there are those prosecutors who love headlines). Wiseguy sings, gives up a non-wiseguy, so maybe he angers a fellow button man by killing a golden goose, but he doesn't rat on a buddy. Prosecutor gets something juicy, something that will stick.

Plausible? Seems that this is what's going on.

And the NBA has a mess on its hands.

A big mess.

Now some former prosecutor turned big New York law firm partner will conduct an investigation, review tape of all games where this ref tried to influence the outcome. They interview players, fans with good seats (who might have overheard what the ref said when teeing up a player or coach in the heat of a game), interview the scorer's table officials, and publish a 500-page report after thousands of hours of investigation at $500 per hour, at least. The average official, who has done nothing wrong, will suffer. Fans will ask him how much he's being paid to throw a game, and fans sit close to these refs and the refs can hear. A player might say something during the heat of the moment. And the league will put in place some rigorous screening system for its refs and perhaps for technical fouls and for calls in the last five minutes of a game. The league will certainly overreact, as Congress typically does after there's a scandal. And what they'll find, ultimately, is that they can't legislate behavior. All they can do is perform better background checks.

The refs in the NBA have added flavor to the game over the years, and there have been and are many outstanding ones -- something that must not be forgotten. I remember once, years ago, I was sitting behind the basket at 76ers-Celtics game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I can't remember precisely who the players were, but I was yelling at the great referee Earl Strom that the Celtics' center (it might have been Dave Cowens, whom I thought was excellent) was backing in play after play and elbowing the 76er defending him time after time without getting called for an offensive foul. Finally, on the next play, Strom called an offensive foul on the offending Celtic player and then there was a timeout on the floor. I stood up to stretch and I see the referee pointing at me. I was probably an old teenager at the time.

Me (surprised that someone of Strom's stature would notice me): "Me?"

Strom (smiling): "Yes, you." (smiles again). "So what did you think of that?"

Me (smiling widely, giving the thumbs-up sign): "Great call, great call, keep it up."

Strom smiled, put his whistle in his mouth and ran back toward the floor. I'm sure I had nothing to do with me, but he did hear my voice (otherwise why would he have said something?), and that was his personality. He loved every minute of what he did, and it showed. All he was doing with me was having fun with a kid who loved the game as much as he did (and, who knows, as a kid he might have been as partisan for a team as I was for mine). And now there are doubts about all NBA referees, and that is a shame.

Because all we know is that there are allegations that one guy might have altered the outcome of games because he got in with the wrong crowd.

So let's not jump to conclusions. All we have are allegations. Nothing has been proven. But even if they stick, does that mean that the NBA is rotten to the core? Hardly. What it would mean if true is that flawed human behavior victimized the NBA. And before we go off on our high horses, let's be careful not to hold the NBA to higher standards than we hold ourselves or our own favorite employers, because I'm not sure that the best compliance system in the world could have stopped this.

The NBA will investigate, the Justice Department will do its thing, and the referees' union will do what it should, which is protect its own membership.

These guys have some of the toughest officiating jobs in any sport. They run, they get screened out of plays, and they have big guys flying at them, and they make instant decisions. They're not always right, and the fans and players and coaches just want them to call the game consistently for both teams. And almost all of the time they do.

All that said, the NBA does have a credibility issue here, at least with some people, if not with me. Uncertainty helps create credibility problems. The slow passage of time until the indictment is announced will be torture to the NBA. Until the case is tried and the NBA's investigation concludes, no one will know exactly what happened. And that's what the NBA is up against now -- doubt and uncertainty.

And a populace who is shocked that an official could have done something like this.


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