Commentary

Stern's approach to referees still needs rethinking

Originally Published: August 31, 2007
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- With no less than the credibility of the sport at stake, NBA commissioner David Stern appears resistant to radical transformations.

In the first season after the Tim Donaghy scandal, it's time to drastically alter the way the NBA handles its officials. The league should think of itself as being in the same straits it faced in the dark days of the 1970s, and consider all of the ways it can promote itself to a skeptical public. The initial step will be regaining the trust in the officiating. Yet Stern, in his first extended comments since the early days of the scandal, sounded resistant to making officials more accessible or publicizing the league's evaluations of them, two steps that would help.

Maybe the independent investigation by former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz of the officials, the league and its procedures will reveal enough fundamental flaws for the NBA to take notice, but as Stern spoke to reporters Thursday at Thomas & Mack Arena before the USA's Tournament of the Americas game against Argentina, he still had a touch of Defiant Dave in him.

David Stern
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesThe commish is still in the mind-set of protecting his officials.

This is a mistake the NBA can't afford to make. If we strip away the fears and the speculation from the facts, we realize that Donaghy was never charged with fixing NBA games or manipulating their outcomes. The real story is much worse than that. The real issue won't go away as soon as Donaghy is locked in a prison cell.

The good news for the NBA is that the documents paint him as an isolated criminal. "Donaghy concealed this scheme from the NBA and other referees in order to prevent its detection," it says on Page 5 of the federal indictment of him. But we can't write this off as a one-and-done situation because of the serious, yet thus far underplayed allegation earlier in the same paragraph.

It said that Donaghy shared privileged information that "included his knowledge of (A) the officiating crews for upcoming NBA games (B) the interactions between certain referees and certain players and team personnel."

That's the devastating detail, the one with lasting impact. It's the notion that basic human interaction and not criminal behavior can come into play, that likes and dislikes have such a role in the outcome it would determine which way to bet. The feeling has been around for years, expressed by frustrated players, coaches and fans when calls don't go their team's way. This just put it in black and white -- in U.S. District Court, no less.

Stern's response: this is news?

"I guess what I would say is, it's not a revelation that certain coaches and certain referees have issues, and certain players, and statistically you can see certain things happening," Stern said. "We all live with that. You cover the sport, or are with the sport enough to know … it happens."

Even after Donaghy it wouldn't be smart to make the jump from bad call to gambling conspiracy every time there's a suspect whistle. But personal antagonism? That's not too big a leap.

Two players I talked with, Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd, said they believe personal feelings come into play but that, ultimately, it does not determine games.

"I think certain refs have personality conflicts," Billups said. "That's just in life, period. Some guys' personalities don't match. I feel that way about a lot of guys, especially with my guy Rasheed [Wallace]. That's no secret. Everybody knows that. He doesn't get along with a lot of those guys. I don't think it goes farther than that, though. I think it stays right there."

Kidd said it would be worse if referees stayed with teams for three or four games in a row, the way umpiring crews do for a baseball series. "There's no grudge," Kidd said. "Anybody can have a bad day. Just like when you scout a game and they say [a player] likes to go right, you tend to know which official has a short temper, which one you can go up and talk to, which one you can kind of go off on and he respects you."

I talked with an official who said he doesn't have a personal grudge against a certain player, but he does have an interpretation of the way he plays that leads him to call the player for more violations. The official also said he wouldn't give a break to someone who has been nice to him -- but he couldn't say it would not enter his subconscious.

Can we agree that so much of this game is subjective, that if the refs wanted to they could call a foul or a travel on every play, to the point that we'd have worn-out whistles and five-hour games? And if not even Stern is dismissing what was alleged in the court documents, then personal differences can be as much or more of a factor than the players' skills, the jobs the general managers did in assembling the roster, coaching strategies and the medical and training staffs work to keep the players in top condition?

In that case, the most important part of the game is the designation of the officials, which brings another issue to the forefront. The referees are disgruntled with the leadership, an environment they believe is poisoned at the top by NBA vice president of operations Stu Jackson and director of officials Ronnie Nunn. They grumble that assignments can be dictated as much by favoritism as by merit.

In order for this to work, for the public's trust to be regained there must be accountability. And that starts with accessibility. Let (the referees) explain the rationale behind important calls. Let the media act as conduits to bring player and coach complaints directly to the people responsible for managing the games.

Stern defended Jackson and Nunn and took a shot at former officials Mike Mathis and Hue Hollins, who have been critical of the system in recent weeks. He called Mathis and Hollins "former referees who have their own issues and did have their own issues when they were referees." He then added, "As a staff, the quality is a lot better than when Mr. Hollins and Mr. Mathis were roaming the floor."

In other words, if you're looking for heads to roll, don't expect to see Jackson or Nunn at the guillotine. "I'm very protective of our existing officials and our staff and their development," Stern said.

If he won't change the people, how about the system? This is why the league needs to make its evaluations and rankings of the officials available to the public. If they're the best, let the information show it. If there are questions, let them explain the rules and tell what they saw from their perspective, which might have differed from the multiple television replays. The officials don't want this (would you want your annual job performance review posted on the Internet?). The league doesn't want this. The officials says the rankings would need to be in context. That simply listing the results without detailed explanations of how they were determined wouldn't do anyone any good.

But this is a dire situation. The credibility of the league is at stake. There's no time to worry about whose feelings might get hurt. Stern's opinion, in a word, "No."

"What you will see is our attempt to be more open, but I want to wait for the Pedowitz [report] to do that," Stern said. "But the idea that we should somehow toss our referees out there …

"Many people have been happy to condemn them on the basis of either disgruntled former officials or press reports about what Mr. Donaghy is alleged to have said. That's not fair. And I think Lamell McMorris [of the National Basketball Referees Association] and I together will try to come up with a format that does justice to a very hardworking group of people that is a very professional group."

Those are the adjectives we should be using for the officials. They're elite pros as well. They want to get it right. But we never hear their stories. If we knew them, knew the caliber of people they were, someone like Donaghy would jump out as an exception, not an example.

Right now, it's killing the refs that Donaghy is attacking their credibility and they can't speak out in return -- about how isolated and disliked Donaghy was, about how they're even more upset than the fans are about this situation. They want it known that they welcome the independent investigator hired by the NBA, and that if he finds any more wrongdoing they should kick out those refs as well.

They can't talk because of a league-imposed gag order. Stern should let 'em speak. Not just now, but all the time. Don't make the officials' locker room off limits except to a pool reporter in special circumstances. Open it up 10 minutes after the game, just like the teams' locker rooms.

In order for this to work, for the public's trust to be regained, there must be accountability. And that starts with accessibility. Let them explain the rationale behind important calls. Let the media act as conduits to bring player and coach complaints directly to the people responsible for managing the games.

Stern doesn't want any officials to be misquoted or taken out of context. Many of the officials are wary of dealing with the media as well. But if the NBA can take 19-year-olds and anoint them as franchise and league saviors, can't we expect better educated, more mature men and women to speak capably for themselves?

One department in which I agree with Stern is his apparent lack of concern about Donaghy's allegations that other officials participated in gambling activities that, while not illegal, violated league rules. Most of them are supposedly of the dollar-a-hole golf bet varieties. If so, let the officials off with a slap on the wrist. Forget protocol and do what's best for the sport. Fans don't want to see the games officiated by inexperienced, second-tier refs because of this issue any more than they want to see star players suspended for participating in a locker room NCAA tournament pool.

As Stern spoke to reporters, Magic Johnson walked through the Thomas & Mack service tunnel and into the arena. Once upon a time all it took was Johnson and Larry Bird stepping onto the scene to make everything better. Those days are long gone. Time to get drastic.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.