NBA to revamp ref gambling rules; Jackson, Nunn see roles reduced

Updated: October 26, 2007, 9:16 PM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Technically, it turns out every single current NBA referee has gambled in some form, after all -- although none of them are going to be punished for it.

And, strange as it may seem, those very same referees will now be permitted to gamble in a multitude of ways.

That development, along with a reduction in duties for league executives Stu Jackson and Ronnie Nunn, were revealed Thursday by NBA commissioner David Stern following the league's Board of Governors meeting.

Stern said an internal review had found that all of the league's 56 referees violated the contractual prohibition against engaging in gambling, with more than half of them admitting to placing wagers in casinos. But Stern said none of the violations was major, and no referees had admitted to wagering in a sports book or with a bookie.

"Our ban on gambling is absolute, and in my view it is too absolute, too harsh and was not particularly well-enforced over the years," Stern said. "We're going to come up with a new set of rules that make sense."

"It's too easy to issue rules that are on their faith violated by $5 Nassau, sitting at a poker table, buying a lottery ticket and then we can move along," Stern said. "And by the time I got through and I determined going into a casino isn't a capital offense ... I'm the CEO of the NBA and I'll take responsibility."

In other developments Thursday:

• Stern said the NBA still did not know for sure whether former referee Tim Donaghy impacted the outcome of games he had placed bets on, saying the answers to all pertinent Donaghy questions will not be known until the government declares the case closed, which cannot happen until Donaghy is sentenced in federal court in January. Stern said the league was interested in speaking to Donaghy and expected to have an opportunity to do so in the coming weeks or months. Stern also said the league had received no additional information indicating that any other referees bet on NBA games or distributed information related to NBA games.

• Stern said there would not yet be any punitive action taken against coach Isiah Thomas and/or owner James Dolan of the New York Knicks. A jury decided earlier this month that they had sexually harassed a former team executive, but Stern said he would wait until Thomas' and Dolan's appeals are decided before deciding whether to take disciplinary action. In the meantime, Stern has mandated that every single employee of all 30 NBA teams undergo sensitivity training.

• The board heard what "wasn't a very uplifting report" about the situation in Seattle, where there has been no progress on funding for a new arena that would keep the SuperSonics in the city. Stern called himself an optimist but said his "optimism is waning" when it comes to the team's future there.

• Stern also took somewhat of a wait-and-see attitude on the question of expansion or relocation into Las Vegas, saying the board wanted to wait to see which of the two competing arena projects gets the go-ahead before addressing the issue further.

• Jackson, the league's executive vice president of operations, will lose some of his power in the months ahead. Basically, his job will be divided in two. Jackson will retain control over basketball operations, and a new executive will be hired by the NBA to oversee all aspects relating to the officiating staff. Jackson will continue to hand out on-court discipline and deal with many of the league's international ventures, but will give up his referee responsibilities. Jackson will retain all those responsibilities in the interim.

Nunn, the league's director of officials, will spend more time on the road concentrating on the mentoring of young officials. He also will cease doing a show on NBA-TV that focused on the league's officiating. Stern said Nunn told him that "it's more valuable for him to be on the road than to do his television show."

"We are broadening and taking more responsibility and we are doing it with the people that we have and we're going to add to them," Stern said, "but certainly it's not a reduction of responsibility."

• The Board received an interim progress report from attorney Lawrence Pedowitz, who is conducting a comprehensive review of the league's officiating policies and methods. As part of that review, Pedowitz interviewed each of the NBA's referees and asked them whether they had undertaken any form of gambling, which (other than placing wagers on horses at thoroughbred tracks during the offseason) is prohibited under the referees' collective bargaining agreement.

"Everyone violated the rule in some way, whether it was playing poker, buying lottery tickets & but I don't consider it a violation of the rules to buy a lottery ticket or play golf for $5," Stern said.

"About half had gone to casinos over a period of years with no great frequency. No sports books. No bookmakers," Stern said, adding that enforcement of the gambling rule was so lax that referees traditionally held a large poker tournament at their annual meeting.

Some referees acknowledged making wagers with their colleagues on college games between their alma maters, as well as bets in football polls and in NCAA Tournament basketball pools, Stern said.

Stern said the gambling rules in the referees' labor agreement were outdated in regards to changing attitudes toward gambling in the United States, and he said they'd be rewritten to allow various forms of gambling, including casino betting (but not on sports) during the offseason. Stern also disclosed that some owners had pushed for a change to the rules that would have allowed in-season gambling at casinos, too.

Stern also announced some changes relating to referees:

• The identities of the referees assigned to specific NBA games will now be released the morning of the game, rather than 90 minutes before tip-off. Stern said this would eliminate that information being used as currency in the gambling business.

• Referees will be given more training and gambling-related counseling during the season, rather than the past practice having them attend one lecture prior to the season.

• Referees will be subject to more detailed background and security checks, and the league will begin to look at statistical trends in NBA games and how they correspond to gambling trends in those games.

• The league will promote more accessibility between referees and NBA teams, and more formal interaction between them.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.