NBA Refs Crooked? You Bet!

Tim Donaghy has made many an enemy over the last several days. I imagine two of them are named Justin Wolfers and Joseph Price.

Those names may not jog any memories, but their work will: they are the authors of a study, from a sample of NBA box scores taken between 1991 and 2004, which claimed white referees called fouls against black players more than they did against white players.

Fire up the paper-shredder, because that debate is over: NBA referees aren't racist ... they're just point-shaving crooks.

Donaghy resigned after 13 years as an NBA official after being targeted by the FBI for allegedly betting on games; both ones he officiated and ones in which he did not work. It's the nightmare scenario for any professional sports organization: that moment in which the ticket-buying public realizes there is a very good chance that the outcomes of the games they are attending have been predetermined.

As soon as I heard about the Donaghy scandal, my first reaction turned out to be exactly what the NBA decided to plead: "isolated case." (You can take the boy out of PR, but you can't take the PR out of the boy I suppose.) David Stern referred to his former employee as a "rogue, isolated criminal," which made me wonder if he (or his speechwriter) has been watching too many episodes of "24" on DVD lately.

I watched half of Stern's press conference, and listened to the rest on the radio. The entire time I felt like I was watching my high-school principal — those authoritative models of morality — talking to TV reporters about the kid who got picked up by the cops for bringing a gun to class. There was this weary, "how the **** did I get here?" quality to his performance that spoke volumes about the damage Donaghy has done to the NBA and to the commissioner personally.

Aside from what this all means for Stern's legacy, the most prominent question being asked at this point is what the Donaghy deception means for fans. Can we still trust the officials? Can we still trust the league?

You mean we were supposed to trust them in the first place?

Isn't it assumed, at least by cynical bastards like me, that the refs are biased, the players are competing for their own motivations and that the games are made-for-TV infomercials for sneakers and mesh shorts?

I have to laugh when I hear pundits openly wonder about the fate of the Association if more than just one referee was shaving points, adding points, called phantom fouls, or other chicanery; as if the notion of a referee calling his own game is somehow a deal-breaker between the league and the paying public.

Seriously, take gambling out of the equation with Donaghy, and what are you left with? A referee calling the game based on what he wants to see happen.


You mean there are officials in the NBA that will call a foul because he felt he missed one before? There are referees that might try and lend a helping hand to a team on the ropes with a friendly call? There are guardians of the rule of law that maybe — just maybe — would call a personal or technical foul on a player just because they don't like the guy?

I'm not trying to make light of the blatant criminality of Donaghy's transgressions, or their injurious affect on the league. But stripped of their scandalous distinctiveness, this is a referee doing what most fans believe officials in their respective sports do anyway: following their own internal script for what should happen. Donaghy's script allegedly called for two teams to combine for a certain number of points or for one team to win by a certain margin. Another official's script might call for two hated rivals to go to overtime in a tight game, or for a superstar to play on despite earning his fifth foul at the end of the third quarter. Different motivations, same result: the natural progression of the game is derailed by subjective human emotion or illogic.

If David Stern and the NBA learn anything from this, it's that the media and fans really do enjoy the notion that every call from every ref is available for review by the league. And that we won't be heartbroken if the NBA comes out and claims some of its most stalwart employees are actually quite biased when it comes to patterns of officiating — especially if that means some of them receive their walking papers. It doesn't mean they're on the take or they have money on the game; it simply means they aren't rising to the level of impartiality and consistency their job, and the NBA's paying customers, demand. It starts with basketball — hockey, football, and baseball fans could only be so lucky to see it continue in their respective leagues.

After reading the racial bias study for NBA referees, Mark Cuban told the NY Times, "We're all human. We all have our own prejudice."

Tim Donaghy might be an "isolated criminal," but his desire to call the game according to how he'd like to see it play out is far from an isolated behavior in the NBA or any other professional league.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is the Features Editor for SportsFan Magazine in Washington, DC, and the Senior Sports Editor for The Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia. His book is "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History." His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

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