What's next for the NBA is a good hook

Originally Published: July 19, 2007
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

You know it's not a good Friday, as a sports commissioner, when you wake up to a crisis that you'd gladly trade straight up for baseball's steroid scandal.

Or as my Bloomberg News colleague Scott Soshnick put it on ESPN's "Outside The Lines": It would have been a much, much better Friday for David Stern if he were merely faced with the news bulletin that one of his Michael Vick-sized stars was being indicted on charges of sponsoring a widespread dogfighting operation.

Instead …

This can only be described as a horrific Friday for Stern and his National Basketball Association. The New York Post's disclosure that a referee is being investigated by the FBI for betting on games and making calls to manipulate point spreads -- a referee later identified by multiple ESPN sources as 13-year vet Tim Donaghy -- will haunt this league for the foreseeable future.

It's difficult to imagine otherwise even if Donaghy were to be found innocent.

Anthony: One big mistake

While some who are critical of the NBA point to this being an organization's problem, I see this more as probably one man's human error.

This is playing out as if in a movie. You just never know about the skeletons in somebody's closet.

When I was a player, I didn't think about how officiating could be affected this way. You deal with whatever adversity is out there on the court. Officials are like players; they are going to make mistakes.

But you don't think someone is making a mistake based on an ulterior motive. You don't think you'll see a "Goodfellas" scenario playing out, where somebody on the court becomes an agent for organized crime.

Now David Stern has a big concern. And I think it's more of a problem because it's an official rather than a player who's alleged to have done this.

The one element of our game the NBA has wanted to keep out of the public eye is the way officials are handled. You never hear about when they're fined or punished, and rightfully so. You don't want that kind of information coming into the picture of what happens on the court.

So when we see Joey Crawford situations come up in the future, it's going to come under far more scrutiny and speculation. The NBA used to be able to put a big blanket over that.

Stern won't have the same luxury moving forward. This is going to create issues for him; he's dealt with players' suspensions and trouble with the law, but now these officiating issues have been brought to the forefront.

I don't know how he's going to deal with this.

-- Greg Anthony, ESPN

It's hard to believe that Barry Bonds can probably claim a greater share of the public's trust than the NBA at large, but that's the ugly reality confronting Stern. As even Stern himself termed it in a statement issued Friday afternoon, in terms that didn't appear to raise much hope of innocence, Donaghy is accused of betraying "the most sacred trust in professional sports."

How long it takes to rebuild the public's confidence in NBA refereeing from here -- and the steps that the NBA will have to take to get there when confidence was already sagging so -- is something you can't even estimate at this early juncture.

Chances are it won't matter if this proves to be "a single NBA referee" acting alone, as Donaghy was described in the NBA's press release.

It doesn't seem to matter, as we speak, that formal charges have yet to be filed against him.

It doesn't even matter that the zillions of conspiracy theories that have been floated about the NBA over the past two decades -- most of them suggesting that the league was manipulating outcomes to support its superstars or big-market franchises in the quest for better TV ratings -- don't appear to have any connection to the things Donaghy is alleged to have done.

NBA conspiracy theorists have simply been waiting for some sort of proof that referees, for all the call-by-call video monitoring they get from their bosses, use their whistles unjustly to change games.

And they've never been closer to tangible proof than these claims against Donaghy, which allege that, for the past two seasons, he made calls intended to affect point spreads and thus ensure that he and his crime-ring connections could cash in on large bets.

Donaghy has already resigned … and the ref colleagues he has left behind already know the impact of his case. People in positions of power abuse that power all over the real world. Politicians, policemen and corporate honchos, you name it. There are law breakers everywhere. Yet in sports especially, guilt is assumed and innocence must be proven.

Unfair as that sounds.

So first the NBA has to prove to the masses that Donaghy is the only ref under suspicion of submitting to mob influences.

Stern will then have to bring a revolutionary level of transparency to his referee corps and its corresponding training/administration/review practices that can, as he says, "protect against this ever happening again."

Ideas, however, on how any of that gets done were pretty scarce on a dark, dark Friday.

How bleak is the situation? Various international soccer leagues have survived a handful of match-fixing scandals, but no referee, umpire, linesman or in-game official of any sort has ever been arrested or indicted for point-shaving or match-fixing in the history of America's four major team sports.

So if this proves to be the Friday that finally launches the NBA on the road to fixing the credibility problem that has plagued its referees for years, as a few team executives have anonymously and optimistically suggested, Step 1 was a monumentally scary leap backward.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics