Referees desperate to avoid credibility issues
NCAA officials are expecting a backlash and a potentially lasting blow to their credibility because of the allegations that NBA official Tim Donaghy made calls with the purpose of affecting point spreads the past two seasons.
ESPN.com contacted a handful of NCAA officials Sunday and found that they were distressed over the FBI's investigation into Donaghy while also fearing that the officiating profession has been irreparably harmed.
"If it's true, and the initial reports indicate that it is, then it's a huge black eye on all officials, at all levels," said veteran college referee Rick Hartzell, who also serves as Northern Iowa's athletic director but refuses to officiate any game with a fellow Missouri Valley team to avoid a conflict of interest. "People are now going to look that if someone at the highest level of officiating can be bought or swayed to have an impact on a game, then maybe everybody can.
"It paints all of us in a horrible light. It's a very, very sad thing. I hope that somehow people look at this as an individual who made a mistake and don't paint us with the broad brush, but it's a huge black eye."
Veteran official Mike Wood said that fans are more hostile today -- and if a controversial call is made, right or wrong, he said officials will hear comments alluding to the Donaghy scandal.
"Every call will be scrutinized at the end of the game," Wood said. "It's a black eye for the sport, if the allegations are true."
Wood said that officials have stayed out of the news of any point-shaving scandals -- until now.
"This will open up a situation for someone to say that, 'I told you so. Those guys in stripes are less than honest,'" said John Clougherty, a longtime official and now ACC head of officials. "Any time a fan loses a bet, he's going to say the official is on the take. It just worries me, whether you're in the NBA or college, we're going to have to fight an image problem. Our integrity has been damaged, without question."
"As an official, integrity is all that you have," Wood said. "If Mike Wood has integrity and is honest, that doesn't mean he won't miss a call. It's part of the game. But I'm missing them honestly. Sometimes fans don't understand that. Any controversial call will now be, 'OK, he's betting on the game.'"
The actual act of trying to fix the outcome is lost on a number of officials. Hartzell said he finds it hard to believe that an official can affect the outcome because of how fast the game is played and the position of officials on the court.
"You'd have to have a play that impacted the score that you can call," said Hartzell, who officiates primarily Big Ten, Big 12 and Horizon games. "There are certain plays that officials don't call from certain points on the court. If you're 60 feet from the play, you can't rush in there and put someone on the line or call an offensive foul and take the ball away. If you did it more than once or twice, then someone is going to say 'Something is going on here.'
"It's hard to fathom that someone could have influence in a game in a way that you could guarantee that it would be under seven [points] or over eight [points] or however it works. You'd really have to stretch the bounds of officiating to get it done."
Hartzell said that when the officiating crews were two-person teams, there were more calls out of an official's area that were made by each official. But with the NBA and college using three-person crews, most calls are tied to one official's area on the floor at the time of the infraction.
"That doesn't mean that once in a while you wouldn't go out of your space if your partner didn't see a play," said Hartzell, who used to referee in the ACC with Donaghy's father, Jerry. "But to be able to think you could do that for an entire 48-minute or 40-minute game, to manage that point spread, seems almost impossible to do. I don't have experience and don't want any, but it would be hard to do it without scrutiny from the people who hire you. The light would go off immediately."
Wood said officials don't have time to think about off-court issues during the speed of the game.
We have far, far more referees than the NBA does. I honestly hope that this is a one-time Tim Donaghy situation.
Clougherty said the NCAA has been vigilant in educating officials about the dangers of gambling. He said the NCAA has put together a film that "even has a guy that was in the mob that is now out of that circle." He said the NCAA hammered home the point to its officials by telling them how much money is being wagered during the NCAA Tournament.
"You have to be extremely careful of who you speak to and how visible you are at the tournament sites," Clougherty said.
One of the bigger changes, Clougherty said, was the NCAA's decision to keep the championship game officials out of the Final Four city until the day of the title game.
"All nine officials [three for each of the three games Final Four weekend] used to be there the whole time from Friday through Monday," Clougherty said. "But a few years ago, they changed that because they didn't want the referees who worked the title game to be exposed, visible and have everyone know who they are prior to the title game."
Officials are also subject to extensive background checks, Clougherty said. One major difference between NBA and NCAA officials is a union. NBA officials have one. NCAA officials don't; they are all independent contractors and in many cases have other jobs.
The only recent incident involving officials and a potential scandal in college occurred in 2006 when the SEC fired official Kerry Sitton because of his connection with a federal investigation into former SEC official Travis Correll (who resigned from the league) relating to a multimillion dollar investment fraud scheme. The day Correll resigned, the SEC fired its then-director of officials, John Guthrie, and also released referee Jason McNeil, although the league said they weren't linked to the investigation. But that scandal was clearly an off-the-court issue.
The Donaghy revelation, however, has college officials fearing their credibility has taken a hit.
"When I was in the ACC, they used to say that you should act like the walls have ears," Hartzell said. "It's a good adage to live by."
"I think this will be a concern for every college commissioner," Clougherty said, "and I'm sure we will see even more education on it from the NCAA in the fall. There will be a point to make sure that everyone knows this could happen [to the NCAA] so we have to keep hammering it. We have far, far more referees than the NBA does. I honestly hope that this is a one-time Tim Donaghy situation."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.