Commentary

Stein Q&A: Heft alone unlikely to change perceptions of officiating

Originally Published: October 5, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

If you haven't made it yet through the entire Pedowitz report, we understand.

It's 133 pages long.

It's the long-awaited review of the NBA's refereeing operation by former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz, resulting in a book-length document that really should come with its own CliffsNotes.

That's what we try to provide here in our usual Q-and-A fashion:

Q: News of the Donaghy scandal broke nearly 15 months ago. Will the Pedowitz report bring any semblance of closure to the story?

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• If there was another Tim Donaghy today would he be caught? TrueHoop

Nope. None.

The Pedowitz report simply never had that sort of potential, irrespective of a price tag that league officials say strayed into the millions.

Such is the NBA's plight with regard to the public's general view of league officiating that it had to open itself up to this kind of review (whatever the cost) as part of its try-anything attempts to restore confidence … while knowing throughout the past 14-plus months that the document would very likely be met with shrugs, suspicion and even derision unless it identified other referees who were either Donaghy accomplices or participating in their own illegal activities.

Like two fairly well-established government agencies, Pedowitz didn't find any more Donaghys. His findings were consistent with what the FBI and Department of Justice found: They all say Donaghy was the lone NBA ref breaking the law.

Yet as we've discussed here on numerous occasions, no professional team sport in America is subjected to skepticism and accusations like the NBA, where it has become standard practice for folks on the inside -- coaches, players, owners -- as well as fans on the outside to respond to painful losses with charges of biased refereeing or outright game-rigging. Skepticism, then, was always going to loudly greet the Pedowitz results, given that Pedowitz, for all his qualifications, was hired by Stern.

So it came as little surprise Thursday, when the findings were finally released, that Stern was essentially asked if the league had fixed the Pedowitz report by furnishing three executives from the NBA's officiating department (Ronnie Nunn, Paul Brazeau and Bernie Fryer) to work directly with Pedowitz on the review of 17 games allegedly compromised by Donaghy's calls.

"We encouraged Mr. Pedowitz to review that review," Stern said in Thursday's conference call with NBA reporters. Added Stern, "The tapes were [also] turned over to the FBI and the Justice Department for their review … and we subjected each of our reviewers to cross-examination by Mr. Pedowitz as well. So there was a community of interest that was designed to get to the facts as best we possibly could.

"… I don't know what to argue to you or tell you. And we don't profess to a degree of certainty. All we say is that we found no reason to conclude that the U.S. Attorney and the FBI were incorrect in their finding that there was no criminal activity about game manipulation, period. So there were multiple sets of reviews.''

Q: If this didn't do it, what measures would start repairing the public's trust in NBA referees?

I still don't know. I didn't know in June and I haven't had any subsequent success (a) determining why conspiracy theories are far more prevalent in the NBA than they are in any other league or (b) figuring out what will eventually chip away at such perceptions.

I remain convinced that the NBA submitting to an open examination of its referees on Capitol Hill, as baseball did with steroids, would serve the media-seeking politicians conducting the hearings far more than they'd benefit basketball. Donaghy's lawyer, John Lauro, told ESPN.com's Mike Fish this week that investigations like the Pedowitz report have "to be done not by counsel hired by management but by an independent audit committee" as seen in corporate America. But I question whether Lauro's distinction would make much of a difference with NBA fans.

The report found that 52 of the league's 57 referees had engaged in "some form of betting" separate from basketball, typically visits to casinos. All such conduct was in violation of previous league rules.

The change Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has always wanted -- hiring an independent head of officiating from the real world to address Cuban's longstanding complaints about how the NBA finds, evaluates and manages its referees -- finally happened this summer when Stern named former Army Major Gen. Ronald Johnson to run the department previously overseen by NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson and Nunn. But common sense says Johnson -- for all the potential pluses he brings coming from a world slightly more stressful than sports and without any baggage or allegiances from a career in refereeing -- is going to need some time just to familiarize himself with his new surroundings. He also won't be independent in the purest sense of the word, since Johnson will be reporting to top Stern aide Joel Litvin.

Yet here's something to ponder: Are fans really as fed up as they claim to be?

I have some strong doubts there, too.

It's been a bizarre 15 months from this seat, playing out almost completely counter to what I expected. Days after the Donaghy saga began in July 2007, Kevin Garnett was traded from Minnesota to Boston in a blockbuster that (a) quickly drowned out the widespread forecasts of Donaghy-inspired doom for the NBA and (b) set the tone for a dream season in terms of fan interest during which Donaghy, amazingly, was rarely mentioned.

Donaghy chatter eventually did intrude and, to some, even threatened to overshadow Stern's dream Finals matchup, thanks to a headline-grabbing court filing from the Donaghy camp that was intentionally timed when so much national and international media attention was trained on Lakers versus Celtics. The hysteria didn't last, though. Donaghy wasn't even an especially hot story on the day in late July when he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his crimes.

I distinctly remember watching "Pardon The Interruption" that night, when the lead story on one of the most respected daily talk shows in sports was a Cubs-Brewers series -- in July -- as opposed to Donaghy's sentence. Then, later that night, Houston reached a verbal agreement with Sacramento to trade for Ron Artest, instantly becoming the NBA story of the day … although I'm sure there are a few conspiracy theorists out there who would say that someone in the league office must have ordered the Rockets to do something big to distract us.

"We'll win them back," Stern said this week when asked if he thinks fans have been permanently scarred by L'Affaire Donaghy. "And I'm not sure how you would measure the burn. Would it be in decreased attendance, decreased ratings, decreased coverage? Every indication is that the viewing attendance, coverage, interest, Internet blogging and the like is up. And on a global scale, the game between the U.S. and China at the Beijing Olympics was the most watched [basketball] game in history. So we think that our fans are there, but they're appropriately demanding, and we have to satisfy that demand."

In other words: Lots of folks like to shout about how they're so fed up with the current state of refereeing or supposed fixes that they're "done" with the NBA, but it appears that lots of them don't really mean it. The NBA's following grew substantially by almost any measure during the 2007-08 season, as the commissioner noted, even after Stern himself described the initial discovery of Donaghy's transgressions as the worst thing that has ever happened to him and his league.

Q: What are some of the more interesting disclosures in the report?

• Pedowitz's team conducted an estimated 200 interviews, including interviewing each member of the referee staff at least twice. But after Pedowitz's staff asked each of the league's 30 teams whether they wanted to participate in the review to address the state of the league's officiating program as well as the current risks to the integrity of the sport, representatives from only 14 teams (owners, presidents, general managers and coaches) agreed to contribute. Fourteen? Surprising and disappointing, huh? Quick as teams are to complain about getting the scroogie from this ref or that, less than half of the NBA's membership joined in the most committed attempt yet to make officiating better.

• We are reminded that Donaghy was actually investigated by the league in 2005 -- long before he was ever accused of betting on NBA games -- for allegedly gambling in casinos. Donaghy denied the allegations and an outside investigative firm hired to pursue the case found no evidence to support the claims. As stated on Page 25: "The League asked not only whether Donaghy had gambled in casinos but also whether he had wagered on NBA games. Donaghy answered no, and, in so doing, we now know he lied."

• The meatiest review of Donaghy's work focuses on 17 games he officiated during the 2006-07 season, 16 of which Donaghy made picks on, according to court filings. But be advised that Donaghy refereed nearly 300 games (preseason and playoffs included) from 2003-04 through 2006-07 and, according to the government, bet on 30 to 40 games in the first three of those four seasons. As stated on Page 21: "The government has not provided -- publicly or privately -- any information as to the games on which Donaghy wagered. And, as discussed above, Donaghy has declined to meet with us and supply information … Without knowing on which games or teams he wagered and without access to Donaghy's explanation for his calls, we believe that it would be impossible to find that the government's conclusion that he did not manipulate games is erroneous." Not exactly airtight, is it?

• Pedowitz explained the general absence of specific anecdotes from his interviews by saying that interviewees, be they members of the refereeing staff or team representatives, were offered anonymity to ensure "maximum candor." One of the few on-the-record exceptions comes from New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn, who served as the NBA's vice president of basketball operations from 1986 to 2000. From Page 98: "[Thorn] told us that Donaghy's allegations [of game manipulation] were nonsensical, adding that if he, as a former member of League management, ever told a referee to favor one team over another, '[I]t would be in the national press in [30] minutes.'"

• The report found that 52 of the league's 57 referees had engaged in "some form of betting" separate from basketball, typically visits to casinos. All such conduct was in violation of previous league rules, which stated that referees were prohibited from any form of "gambling" with the exception of betting at a racetrack during the offseason. Even wagering $10 on a recreational golf game or purchasing a lottery ticket was forbidden. But Page 103 spells out the new, relaxed rules that have been put into effect, which state that betting at a casino, racetrack or off-track betting establishment is permitted during the offseason as long as the referee notifies the league's security department "within [24] hours of placing such a bet."

Multiple sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Donaghy has already completed a first draft of his own book on the scandal, apparently written without a collaborator and currently being shopped.

Q: What else in the report is must-read?

The sections on Scott Foster and Dick Bavetta, for sure.

Pedowitz strongly backs the government's contention that Foster -- who received 134 calls from Donaghy from October 2006 through April 2007 and many of them before or after either Donaghy or Foster worked a game, according to phone records -- wasn't involved in any of Donaghy's schemes.

He, in fact, devotes nearly eight pages (28-35) to the topic, detailing the referees' long friendship -- revealing, for example, that Foster asked Donaghy to be his son's godfather -- and offering numerous theories to explain why so many of the reported calls were short.

"Several factors lead us to conclude that Foster was not involved in Donaghy's misconduct and that there are innocent explanations for the calls reflected in the phone records," Pedowitz wrote.

Bavetta, meanwhile, is the subject of two extended sections spanning almost 20 pages, covering not only allegations by Donaghy about Bavetta's participation in the Los Angeles Lakers' infamous Game 6 victory over Sacramento in the 2002 Western Conference finals but also claims by unnamed peers that he is a self-promoter who gets too close to various team representatives.

"A number of referees told us that they believe Bavetta is highly conscious of how he is viewed and wants to be liked by everyone, including team personnel," Pedowitz wrote. "Some referees are clearly put off by what they describe as antics and his hugging and kissing of team personnel."

The report adds: "A few ex-referees, including those who have held or hold supervisory positions with the NBA, used harsher words to describe Bavetta's style, suggesting that his play calling at times reflects an effort to keep games close or to ingratiate himself with a team."

Donaghy's charges, remember, prompted government investigators to interview Bavetta, who is quoted by Pedowitz as insisting that his "style is part of his ebullient personality and has often helped lessen tensions on the court."

Q: Have we heard the last from Donaghy for a while?

Depends on how you define "a while."

Whether or not Donaghy plans to grant an interview any time soon, multiple sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Donaghy has already completed a first draft of his own book on the scandal, apparently written without a collaborator and currently being shopped.

Lauro told ESPN.com's Mike Fish that he "can't comment on" the possibility of a book but stressed that "at some appropriate time, as mentioned in the past, we'll make comments."

As for the Pedowitz report itself, Lauro said: "I think it is a Public Relations document intended to support David Stern's position. It certainly lacks independence. It was funded by management as opposed to being an independent investigation answerable to the audit committee or to the owners. I think it is laughable to think that existing employees would feel free to tell David Stern's lawyers the truth about what goes on in the NBA. The only investigation that has independence is the FBI investigation, and as we know that investigation corroborated Tim's credibility. The reason we know that is the government would have not filed the cooperation letter and the request for [a reduced sentence] unless the government concluded that Tim had been telling the truth.

"… The bottom line why we saw no reason to communicate with the Pedowitz group was that their whole focus is on trying to build a case to disparage Tim rather than looking at the substance of the allegations. Once again, what I rely on [as] the only truly independent investigative group is the FBI.

"… The suggestion that there has never been any effort by referees to manipulate a game … how can you look the fans straight in the eye and say that?"

Countered Pedowitz: "We think we are independent. The NBA asked us to do a general inquiry on a number of topics and report back to them with respect to our findings and conclusions, whatever they may be. If the facts had turned out differently, meaning if there were things about Donaghy's allegations that we found to be true, we would have told the NBA. Our goal here was to try to fix things if there are problems. Our conclusions about everything that we found out are in the report. Our goal was to be fact-based and we didn't have an agenda. So the short answer is we think we are independent.

"As for the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office speaks for the federal government. And the assistant U.S. attorney [Jeffrey Goldberg] said with respect to Mr. Donaghy's allegations that a number of the allegations don't hold water. And the court agreed that Mr. Lauro didn't have any basis for the assertion that Mr. Donaghy's allegations had been substantiated. And this was the assistant U.S. attorney speaking in court. That was significant to us."

How does the NBA proceed from here?

The league, in truth, was making changes even before the report was issued, acting on Pedowitz's recommendation that the officiating program should be separate from the rest of the NBA's basketball operations department by hiring Johnson to take over. Last season also marked the first time that the league began announcing officiating assignments on the morning of a game, making public what was previously the privileged information Donaghy furnished to his gambling associates.

Stern this week vowed to implement all of the latest recommendations in the Pedowitz report. They include creating a hotline for anonymously raising questions about gambling and game integrity issues, sharing any complaints that the league receives about a referee to both teams in a playoff series starting in the 2008-09 postseason, providing more access to referees to both the media and fans, requiring referees to report contact with players and other team employees to help the league monitor fraternization, instituting new rules pertaining to player gambling, mandatory gambling education for players and developing a statistical screening system to detect data patterns that may suggest misconduct by referees.

Stern also made the rather optimistic claim that he's expecting players, coaches and their bosses to be less publicly critical of and/or suggestive about the NBA's refs after what's happened over the past 15 months:

"I think our players, our coaches and our referees understand that it's time for this family to come together and to focus on the game and to remove what may even be good-faith gamesmanship and whining and demonstrating, but which could have an impact that was the unintended consequence of that.

"So I expect, rather than me having less tolerance, I would rather like to think there's going to be a reawakening of our family with respect to the impact that such [complaints] have on the reputation of our game. But I don't want to shrink from the responsibility of making sure that doesn't happen from enforcing our rules."

"The best we can do is the best we can do," Stern continued. "And that's all we can do. And if I spoke of confidence, I would be exaggerating. The only thing I'm confident of is that … no one will have a better system than we do, although we'll share our system with everybody so we'll all have as good a system as each other.

"But all of that said, to the idea that, you know, criminal activity will exist every place else in the world except in sports is just something that we can't guarantee. But we're going to have the most effective possible system that's ever been devised."

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

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