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Friday, June 13, 2008

The NBA's Mess

The NBA has a great season from a competition standpoint, and they have their dream final match-up between two old Titans, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The networks and the league couldn't have asked for more.

So all should be great in the NBA, shouldn't it? Merchandise sales should be up, the buzz should be greater, people should be more interested in shelling out big bucks for season tickets. LeBron, Kobe, Paul, Kevin, Ray, Tim, Manu and the gang all should be the talk of pro basketball fans.

It should be that simple, shouldn't it?

But, no, the walking scandal that is Tim Donaghy just won't go away. More stories are emerging, some owing to Donaghy or his lawyer, others owing to enterprising journalists who won't stop turning over the rocks until there are no more rocks to turn over. Speculation has popped up about the 2002 NBA Western Conference finals, and then, because of the digging, a story (or two or three hundred) have emerged that officials (including Federal agents) questioned various refs about the conduct of a ref not named Tim Donaghy. You can read the most recent link to ESPN on the topic here.

Something is rotten in the State of David Stern, who has closed ranks and is trying to brush off the story as a sideshow, speculation, a non-event. He'll now have the privilege of telling his story to members of Congress, who, once again, are quick to jump in and ask questions. They figure that if they do so they'll draw ratings in an election year close to that of, well, the Super Bowl.

First it was performance-enhancing drugs. Then it was the Foxboro Film Festival. Now it's alleged outcome-altering performances by referees. The smoke is certainly thickening.

But is there anything there? What's clearly not there is transparency. The NBA has a credibility problem right now, and what it should do is hold a press conference and explain the nature of investigations, and this one in particular. What investigators do (or so I'm told) is start with their basic fact pattern, find witnesses, ask them questions, review related documents and see where the investigation takes them. If this means that the investigation focused on other referees (which it might have), that's fine, but then say that (and you don't have to name names) and then clear the conduct. For example, what was the conclusion about the referee who was the focus of the link? It could well be that questions were asked, exculpatory answers were given, and the inquiry ended. What the NBA public needs to know -- and must know -- is that the inquiries have ended, that Donaghy was the only bad actor, and that they vigorously review performances, hold refs accountable, and occasionally terminate refs who just don't get the calls right.


But if they can't do that, then what's going on? Over a dozen refs were implicated in a tax scandal years back when they cashed in their first-class airplane tickets, bought coach tickets, kept the difference and didn't report that difference as income. Many resigned, one went to trial and was acquitted, and I believe a few were re-hired or reinstated after being suspended. That problem, in and of itself, was a black eye, but it's long since passed. That issue, however, did send a signal to undeworld types that there could be a ref population interested in making more money or in need of more money because of increasing lifestyle expectations. That's speculation, of course, but the longer this particular scandal has been in the NBA's rear-view mirror, the better for the league and the good refs (and that's a huge majority of them).

Still, the NBA needs to clear the air here. If Commissioner Stern fails to take the lead on this, he'll have created a vacuum, and bad things typically fill vacuums. Congressional hearings, published speculation, nasty rumors.

Which is too bad, because on the court, the NBA has had a very good season.

Then again, if the ref scandal isn't put to bad, the overarching question remains: "do we really know that the NBA has had a good season?"


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