Stern speaks, but big questions (and answers) remain

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

NBA commissioner David Stern fielded 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 point of contention 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 rogue, isolated criminal," as Stern is now describing him.

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.

Stern confirmed at Tuesday's news conference that the league hired an outside firm in 2005 to investigate a variety of allegations against Donaghy at about the same time litigation was filed against him by a neighbor in Pennsylvania, including claims that Donaghy was seen gambling in an Atlantic City casino. NBA refs are prohibited from "all forms of gambling," according to Stern, and are subject to termination if discovered. But Stern said that none of the '05 claims against Donaghy -- who was summoned to the league office as part of the inquiry -- could be substantiated.

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. Stern insisted at his press briefing that the NBA was not made aware of the FBI's probe until June 20, nearly a week after the NBA Finals.

"There's been speculation that we knew that Donaghy was betting this season and nevertheless let him work -- that's not true," Stern said, referring to reports from multiple news outlets that the league knew as early as January.

Two sources close to the situation told ESPN.com on Monday night that Donaghy's affinity for various forms of gambling -- if not specifically the claims that he was betting on games and offering confidential referee information to gambling associates -- was known in the league office and by some referees for some time.

If that is proved to be the case, 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. For the record, Stern reiterated Tuesday that the league had not received any indications over the past two years that Donaghy had a gambling problem.

If the NBA keeps such thorough data on every call and missed call by referees, 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, starting with the 2003-04 season, 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 in every game he officiated who joined him for those film sessions.

So shouldn't it follow that a pattern of questionable calls would have been seen by someone, if such a pattern exists, since Donaghy was being monitored by his bosses, his peers and the observers placed in the stands by the league at every game? How did no one notice missed or curious calls by Donaghy?

Stern said Tuesday that the league, at this point in the FBI's investigation, is "not positive" that Donaghy is being accused of betting on games he worked in and that the league won't know the number of games or which specific games are in question until the FBI's inquiry is complete and there's a "determination by the Justice Department what they're going to do with it."

Even then, though, pinpointing instances when Donaghy tried to manipulate point spreads with his whistle might not be any easier.

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 understand 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. In 2003, he was involved in a postgame exchange in an arena loading dock with then-Portland forward Rasheed Wallace, 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, at least partly because Donaghy exchanged blows with fellow Philadelphia native Joey Crawford at a refs' meeting years ago. Stern did acknowledge 40-year-old Donaghy's turbulent past but insisted that nothing he had done conductwise deserved a stronger punishment than exclusion from the second round of the 2005 playoffs, which was not known until Stern revealed it Tuesday.

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, quoted an NBA Players Association source 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 of which Donaghy is accused?

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 about $85,000, according to league sources, but the overwhelming majority are six-figure earners. At the high end of the scale, salaries surpass $300,000.

Stern disclosed Tuesday that Donaghy made $260,000 for the 2006-07 season, adding that "there are a lot of people that keep the peace that earn a lot less."

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. With so many other pressing questions, Stern wasn't asked to address this at his meeting with the media, apart from a query about revisiting an exception to the league's anti-gambling policy that allows referees to bet at racetracks in the offseason.

"Boy, we're going to revisit everything," Stern said. "Everything."

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 for new administrative blood 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 attention to the statement Stern released 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 concluded early on that the league was never 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 or league officials 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. Damaging the public's faith in the league as a whole is a level of infamy not even Pete Rose can reach, which is why Stern didn't hesitate to call Donaghy's case the "worst [thing] that could happen to a professional sports league."

Conspiracy theories have plagued the NBA like no other U.S. sports league for more than two decades, most of them founded on 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 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.

The exasperated, humbled commissioner conceded Tuesday that Donaghy's fellow referees "likely have been and will continue to be unfairly besmirched" because of this case, with no way for the NBA to know how long it'll take to start winning back the public's confidence. That's because Stern also was forced to concede that "all of my knowledge [at this point] is secondhand," with the scandal still so far out of the NBA's control that Stern won't have clearance to really dig into his own internal investigation until the FBI is finished.

Every game Donaghy officiated the past two seasons suddenly is being dissected and questioned by the public, with no known timetable for the league to start addressing fans' fears and concerns. The uncertainty, as a result, is considerable even if this is only a one-ref mess, which is why the best-case scenario is pretty ugly.

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