Donaghy questions ... and answers

Originally Published: July 24, 2007
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This article was published before David Stern's Tuesday news conference. Updates to come.

NBA commissioner David Stern will field Tim Donaghy questions for the first time Tuesday. But we decided to pose and answer a few of our own as a side dish:

If Donaghy's bosses knew he had a gambling problem, why was he allowed to referee all the way into the playoffs last season?

This is the biggest mystery in the scandal so far ... or no lower than No. 2 behind the uneasiness that will linger indefinitely until the league can prove for sure that Donaghy is just "a single NBA referee" under suspicion alone, as described in a Stern statement Friday.

The problem?

It's a mystery partly because it remains unclear how much the NBA knew as of May 12, when Donaghy refereed what will be recorded as his final NBA game: Game 3 of the San Antonio-Phoenix playoff series.

OTL: Stern Lecture

"Outside the Lines" (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) will have the latest on NBA commissioner David Stern's comments and the impact of the Tim Donaghy allegations on the NBA. OTL

The New York Times reported in Tuesday's editions that the league hired an outside firm in 2005 to investigate allegations that Donaghy was seen gambling in an Atlantic City casino. NBA refs are prohibited from any form of gambling and subject to termination if discovered, but those claims against Donaghy -- who was summoned to the league office as part of the inquiry -- could not be substantiated, according to the newspaper.

The newer and larger allegations, of course, have Donaghy betting on NBA games and doing so under the influence of organized crime figures, as discovered during an ongoing FBI investigation into mob activity. Yet there have been conflicting media reports in recent days regarding when the NBA learned of that FBI investigation, which might have been as early as January or as recently as last month.

Two sources close to the situation insisted to ESPN.com on Monday night that Donaghy's affinity for various forms of gambling -- if not specifically the claim that he was attempting to manipulate point spreads with his whistle the past two seasons -- was known in the league office for some time.

If so, Stern and his staff will have to absorb their own considerable slice of blame in this mess, having declined to strip Donaghy of his whistle months ago.

(One disclaimer, though: One source wondered aloud Monday whether the FBI might have insisted that the NBA let Donaghy keep working to preserve the larger sting operation, suggesting that suspending him before the playoffs would have cost them the crime-ring types originally being targeted. Interesting theory.)

If the NBA keeps such thorough data on every call and non-call referees make, as we're often told, why didn't Donaghy raise more suspicion during the season?

This mystery is right up there, too. Referees have been increasingly scrutinized by their bosses the past few seasons, most notably through pregame and postgame video review sessions. According to one of Stern's pet quotes, his referees are the "most ranked, rated, reviewed, statistically analyzed and mentored group of employees of any company in any place in the world."

Don't forget, furthermore, that Donaghy had two partners working in every game he did and joining him for those film sessions.

So it follows that a pattern of questionable calls should have been seen by someone, given that Donaghy was being monitored at varying degrees by his bosses, peers and the observers placed in the stands by the league at every game. How did no one notice missed or curious calls in various crunch times?

It also seems reasonable to expect that Donaghy would have attracted more than standard scrutiny, given the numbers compiled by Stats LLC, which told the New York Post that Donaghy's crew called 177 technical fouls last season -- 20 more than any other officiating crew -- also finishing fourth in most personal fouls called, third in awarding free throws and second in fouling out players.

However ...

Said one unnamed referee in a Boston Globe interview with ESPN contributor Jackie MacMullan: "I didn't work with [Donaghy] all that much, but I'm doing what everybody is doing now. I'm going back in my mind to the games we did work together. I'm trying to remember specific calls or particular discrepancies we might have had. I can't come up with anything.

"To be honest with you, I just can't get my head around it. We have certain protocols we follow in officiating a game. There's the start of the play, the development of the play and the finish of the play. You are required to carefully observe all three of them before you consider making a call. When you blow the whistle based on the development of the play and the finish of the play without seeing the start of the play, chances are you are going to make a bad call.

"Are there bad calls? All the time. Did he make some of them? Sure. None of us get it 100 percent right. Is there judgment in officiating? Of course. Human error? Of course. So how can any of us look at this and say, 'That's where he was altering the score'? It's too subtle. There are too many variables."

If Donaghy had a reputation as a bit of a hothead, as we're now hearing and reading daily, why wasn't he more well-known before last week?

Yet another mystery?

Afraid so.

Donaghy has never been one of the league's high-profile refs, but it's difficult to explain why not when you review some of his recent history. The 13-year veteran was on the floor when Indiana and Detroit engaged in their infamous brawl in November 2004 and later was blamed in some quarters for not doing enough to calm tensions. He also was involved in a postgame exchange in an arena loading dock with then-Portland forward Rasheed Wallace in 2003, resulting in a seven-game suspension for Wallace when Donaghy was physically threatened.

One colleague insists Donaghy was known at the league level as an undeniable "problem child" in spite of his relative anonymity because Donaghy also is said to have exchanged blows with fellow Philadelphia native Joey Crawford at a refs' meeting years ago.

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, quoted a players' association source this weekend as saying: "This is the same guy whom players invited to show up in the Bahamas for our annual meetings to discuss his attitude toward them, but it's never happened. He's disliked by a whole lot of people. He's viewed as a loner by other referees, separate from the pack. Still, absolutely no one assumed he would be involved with something like this. The entire NBA community has to be shocked."

If salaries were raised, would that reduce the possibility of referees being lured into the sort of activities Donaghy is accused of?

Referees make only a fraction of what NBA players earn, true, in a league in which the average player salary tops $5 million.

Yet it's a significant stretch to suggest they're all desperate for dollars -- even if you want to overstate things and make it sound as though fighting off such temptations is a common problem.

Entry-level referees are paid in the $85,000 area, according to league sources, but the overwhelming majority are six-figure earners. At the high end of the scale, salaries surpass $300,000.

It's believed that a referee with Donaghy's experience makes more than $200,000 annually, with extra cash coming in the playoffs.

The median wage and salary income in this country in 2005, according to U.S. Census data, was $34,926 for men and $23,546 for women.

If changes are coming to the league's referee structure, what should be expected?

This answer will get a lot longer as we get closer to October and more of the NBA's long-range plans are revealed. Yet rumblings in the referee community are already rampant that director of officials Ronnie Nunn and possibly even NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson will be sacrificed, given that Donaghy's off-court problems -- in his 13-year career -- apparently spiraled to such a dangerous degree on their watch.

Of course, even if the widespread calls for greater transparency in the NBA's officiating program and new administrative blood from the outside are heeded, it remains to be seen how independent any new entity overseeing officials actually will be.

What is the best-case scenario for the league at this point?

If you paid close to attention to Stern's statement Friday evening, in which he declared his determination to "bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports," you undoubtedly have concluded that the league isn't quite expecting Donaghy's name to be cleared.

It would be a major victory for Stern at this point, frankly, if the league can prove conclusively that no other referees are involved. Ditto for any coaches, players and team officials, naturally.

Significant, unprecedented damage, as they say, already has been done to the NBA's integrity, That's damage to the public's faith in the league as a whole, which is a level of infamy perhaps not even Pete Rose can reach.

Conspiracy theories have plagued the NBA like no other U.S. sports league for more than two decades, most of them founded upon assumptions that Stern's office has orchestrated on- and off-court events to help his biggest stars and his teams from the biggest markets, presumably to score the most lucrative TV ratings.

Stern's response, in a 2004 interview with ESPN.com: "What can I say to that except, 'Come watch our games.' And so far, lots of people do. We're playing to close to 90 percent capacity.

"But I guess the more serious answer, and the one that usually gets people to stop and think, is that you realize that person is alleging at least a felony, probably a violation of both state and federal law, punishable by 20 years in a penitentiary. That's why it's also ludicrous, and that's why the media should be held a little bit more accountable for re-uttering the slander too easily by saying, 'People say.' ...

"But, really, we don't take it too seriously. It's really the result of coaches, to a degree, who have been trying to manipulate the media [by telling reporters], 'We lost ... the refereeing ... it's clear the league wants another [playoff] game ... the network wants New York in it.'"

The fear/inevitability now, however, is that Donaghy's alleged actions -- even though they don't come close to fitting the above profiles -- have invigorated and validated all those conspiracy theorists Stern has been scoffing at for years ... and with no way for the NBA to know how long it'll take to start winning back some of the public's confidence.

That uncertainty is considerable even if this is only a one-ref mess, which is why the best-case scenario is pretty ugly. Every game Donaghy officiated the past season-plus suddenly is being studied, doubted and worse.

So if anyone else is implicated with him ...

"[Donaghy is] going to hang over everything -- every referee, every shaky outcome, every bad call -- in ways the average fan doesn't fully realize yet," ESPN.com's Bill Simmons wrote in a weekend column.

"Maybe they'll throw Donaghy in jail, maybe they won't, but he'll linger over every court like a black cloud. You'll hear his name more than you think. You and your buddies will make 'That guy looks like he's pulling a Donaghy!' jokes every time a referee is making calls against your favorite team. Hecklers will gleefully play the Donaghy card after every bad call against the home team. For honest referees still working games, it doesn't matter what happens from this point on -- their collective integrity will always be questioned, their collective track record won't matter, and that will be that."

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