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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Tim Donaghy Affair

Tim Donaghy has a mess on his hands, he's been called a criminal, he's been convicted in the media, and he hasn't been indicted yet. There are conflicting media reports about the following: a) whether any players and any other refs are implicated and b) whether Donaghy did anything more than bet on games in which he officiated (read: fix them). The latter point is somewhat humorous, because the odds are that if someone bets on something where he can affect the outcome, he will. In basketball, that means using your whistle more (or less) than you were trained to. I'm sure that the people who dig deep into the numbers will examine Donaghy's recent history very closely. Check that, they already have.

So what will all sports do now? Will they keep all sorts of metrics on their officials to determine whether there are any statistical outliers and how the outcomes of the game match up against Vegas lines (read: if Ref X refs in too many games that hit the under, does that raise a red flag?). If Official Y in the NHL calls 10% more major penalties than the next guy, and half of those aren't against guys who are labeled "goons," does that mean there's a problem? Do you automatically terminate the guys at the top of the suspicion list to keep everyone honest? And how would that type of taxation affect behavior? Instead of doing what they're trained to do, will refs then look at the stats and adopt "make up" calls in subsequent games to put their averages back within the norms? Will a committee be required in the NBA before a second technical is given or when a ref now wants to eject a player right off the bat by issuing two technical fouls at once?

It would be interesting to see what "randomization" security measures are in place now to make sure one official doesn't officiate in the same venue too many times during a season. It would be interesting to see what type of screening goes on, because there is no screening that can assess the vices of a referee that effectively. Even if the newspaper reports about an investigation into Tim Donaghy two years ago are true (the NBA allegedly investigated Donaghy), the investigation didn't result in a suspension or termination of Donaghy.

This whole affair reminds me of the guy who owns the beach house and who is obsessed with cleanliness. He goes ape when a grain of sand appears on his dining room carpet. What he doesn't realize is that while he can keep the beach out of his house and buckets of sand out of his house, if he's to have any enjoyment of the beach, grains of sand will find their way into his house. While Donaghy's alleged conduct stained the NBA, it is tantamount to a grain of sand. For unless there's a huge pattern of game-fixing that implicates players and refs (read: the beach now is in the house) or a pattern of refs conspiring to fix games (read: the buckets have made their way in), Donaghy is like the grain of sand that makes his way in -- the league really couldn't have done much to prevent this from happening.

I'm sure it officers an Employee Assistance Program to those who need help, but my guess is that Donaghy (if the charges are true), like others with problems, wouldn't have admitted to it and therefore wouldn't have availed himself of the program. That said, what could the NBA have done other than to impose measures that a) from the get go would tarnish their officials' reputations and b) would invade their privacy in significant ways. Is there really a need for that?

Sure, new forms of checking metrics will arise that will red flag certain behavior (if those forms don't exist already), and that's okay. Usually those metrics weed out incompetence and not corruption. But let's be careful not to besmirch the reputations of many over the conduct of a single actor.

Not everyone cheats. Not everyone corrupts the system and their job. Not everyone tarnishes the reputation of an entire group through the actions of an individual. In fact, most people out there do the best they can and don't cheat.

Let's not forget that when watching an NBA game the next time.


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