Four simple steps to solving the NBA's persistent ref problem

I don’t write about sports issues here very often, but … let’s make an exception for this one.

The NBA is in the news big time today, and not because of last night’s Lakers win over the Celtics. Former referee Tim Donaghy, convicted of taking bribes and betting on games he officiated, has now alleged that at least two games – one in 2002 and another in 2005 – involved inappropriate behavior by game officials. In 2002, he says, game 6 of the Western Conference finals between LA and Sacramento was fixed outright.

“Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be ‘company men,’ always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series.

Basketball observers have long cast a suspicious eye on that particular grease fire, and Donaghy’s fresh charges have energized conspiracy theorists who believe the NBA is about as up-and-up as the WWE.

ESPN’s Jemele Hill notes that the NBA isn’t doing much to quash the paranoia, while fellow commentator Marc Stein suggests that there’s not a lot the league can do.

The reality for Stern and his league is considerably more complicated and uncomfortable than Easy Dave makes it sound, no matter how many holes are in the documents emanating from Donaghy’s accusations (no names yet, for starters) and no matter how much backing pro basketball eventually gets from those heavyweight government agencies. The nightmarish reality that hangs over what was supposed to be Stern’s dream Finals is that public confidence in NBA officiating is maybe even lower now than it was when Donaghy’s betting on games and association with known gamblers were first revealed last summer.

With no clear-cut way to raise it.

After the Lakers lost Game 2 of these Finals in Boston, shooting only 10 free throws to the Celtics’ 38? After the Lakers took a must-win Game 3 at home to slice the series deficit to 2-1 and save their season, shooting 20 of the evening’s first 24 free throws and with Kobe Bryant going to the line 18 times?

After Team Donaghy, in between those games, let it be known that he has accused two former fellow referees of fixing the outcome of the Lakers’ unforgettably controversial Game 6 win over the Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals?

Good luck trying to convince disgruntled fans on both coasts that Donaghy’s claims that league officials direct their referees “to manipulate games” to “boost ticket sales and television ratings” have no merit.

“Baseless” was the word Stern used to describe the allegations. But it’s getting harder to find folks who don’t believe there’s something to what Donaghy’s lawyer has been saying. It’s not just the fans, either. Distrust in certain refs only grows every year among players, coaches and team executives.

How bad is it for the NBA right now? Have a look at this piece from True Hoop, where a professional gambler’s confidence in the integrity of the game has been so shaken he’s looking to give up gambling on the sport altogether.


Yes, David Stern has a problem. He’s certainly right that Donaghy is a thug with questionable credibility, but that doesn’t get Stern off the hook. The truth is that officiating in The League is a joke. If you can watch any one-minute span of action in any game during the season without finding a call that could easily have gone the other way or a no-call that makes no sense, you’re just not trying. To be fair, refereeing is hard, and it’s harder in the NBA than probably anywhere else on the planet. But the sad fact is that conspiracy theorists have ammunition like Moby Dick had water to frolic in.

Stein wonders what the NBA can do to improve its credibility with fans. I thought for a few seconds and came up with four suggestions that, if acted on consistently over a couple of seasons, would do wonders for the reputations of the league’s officials.

1: Call Game 7 of the Finals the same way you call games in the first week of the season.

2: Call the last two minutes of every game the way you call the first two minutes.

3: Treat road teams and home teams the same.

4: Officiate the stars like you do rookies and role players.

And if you even pretend that you already do, don’t be too offended if I laugh in your face and never take you seriously again.

7 replies »

  1. I’ve thought hard about this scandal and the baseball scandal and the NFL scandal since this broke a couple of days ago. It seems to me that since sport is the mirror for American life and that this brokenness in American sports is really a metaphor for the brokenness of American government – and American culture.

    Maybe that’s why our elected representatives seem to want to put their efforts into “investigating” and “finding solutions for the problems” in American sport. They don’t have any will or interest, it seems, in investigating or solving the problems of American government and culture.

  2. Actually Jim I believe it’s because no one is going to get upset if they investigate sports for things like this. It’s pure backlash-free headline mongering. There is no hidden reason for this other, just vanity and cowardice.

  3. How about more refs? How about less vague standards for calling fouls? How about giving each coach 20 disputations per quarter to go to instant replay cameras? This game is too darn fast anyways, and there will be more $$$ for commercial breaks 😉