Commentary

Big Ten ref's checkered background scares fellow officials

Originally Published: December 19, 2007
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

When the phone started ringing and the e-mails began pouring into his inbox Wednesday morning, Barry Mano knew the news had finally spread. Four months after NBA official Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to betting on NBA games -- including games he officiated -- another scandal had rocked the officiating world.

A Yahoo! Sports investigation revealed that Big Ten referee Stephen Pamon, a crew chief who has worked for the conference since 1988, has a checkered history of bankruptcy, casino gambling, child abuse and allegations of sexual harassment.

The story detailed how Pamon and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2002 after amassing over $400,000 in debt, an amount that Pamon's sister-in-law told Yahoo! Sports was in part because of gambling losses. In addition, the story said, Pamon had been accused of beating three of his then-girlfriend's four sons in 1997 and sexually assaulting one of his former wives' nieces. In 1996, he was fired by the Chicago Police Department after two female officers accused him of sexual harassment.

[+] EnlargeStephen Pamon
AP Photo/Terry GilliamBefore the Ohio State-Illinois game on Nov. 10, Stephen Pamon briefed the team captains.
The accusations are, at a minimum, five years old, but they appear particularly relevant because they come at the end of a season in which Pamon's crew was widely criticized for a series of controversial calls in two games: a Nov. 3 game between Penn State and Purdue and Illinois' 28-21 upset victory over then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus on Nov. 10.

A questionable call on a fumble in the first quarter of the Ohio State game led to the Fighting Illini's first touchdown and potentially might have cost the Buckeyes a chance at an undefeated season.

For Mano, the founder and president of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), a group whose membership includes NBA and NFL officials, the blow-by-blow details are his worst nightmare come true.

Again.

"It's a horror story," Mano said. "As officials, we feel worse than anybody. Then you look at your computer screen and read the list of things they're talking about. You can't help but ask: How did this happen? And how in the world was he allowed to work games?"

The Big Ten said in a statement Wednesday evening that the conference began implementing background checks for basketball and football officials during the 2005-06 academic year. The statement said Pamon underwent a background check in 2005, when the league was notified of certain civil and criminal records, the details of which are confidential. Upon further third-party review, the Big Ten's statement said, the conference was satisfied that Pamon's issues had been resolved.

But the statement also said that certain details reported in Tuesday night's article represented new information which was not available during the 2005 review process. The conference plans to follow-up on the veracity and accuracy of the new information.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Big Ten Supervisor of Officials Dave Parry declined comment. And several attempts to reach Stephen Pamon through his family and at his suburban Chicago home were unsuccessful.

But by Wednesday night, the damage was done for officials everywhere.

"Anytime you hear a story like that, it hurts the cause for all of us," said one BCS conference official who asked that his name be withheld due to his conference's policy of not speaking to the media. "With this story and the NBA scandal, people are going to start wondering if those black and white striped shirts are our officiating uniforms or jump suits."

[+] EnlargeTommy Hunt
AP Photo/Steve HelberFormer ACC Supervisor of Officials Tommy Hunt said a background such as Pamon's probably wouldn't have been tolerated.
Without knowing all the specifics, Tommy Hunt, who officiated in the ACC for 26 seasons and retired in 2006 after nine years as the league's Coordinator of Football Officials, is baffled how the Big Ten could allow a man who was over $400,000 in debt to continue working. But while Pamon filed for bankruptcy in 2002, the Big Ten didn't conduct its background check on Pamon until 2005.

"If that was one of our guys, I'd like to think there would be one quick phone call and we wouldn't have used his services anymore," Hunt said. "Because when you're in debt, you are just what it says: You are indebted to another person, company, group, whatever. You are basically working for them. And that's where the problem can come in."

But Pamon not only was allowed to work in the Big Ten, the NCAA also cleared him to work bowl games, the highest honor for a college football official. According to Yahoo! Sports, Pamon was an alternate for last year's Fiesta Bowl and had worked the Sugar, Holiday and Independence Bowls in years past.

According to Bob Williams, the Managing Director of public and media Relations for the NCAA, the NCAA began random background checks on officials working in bowl games in 2006. He said approximately half of the officials who work bowl games are checked each year, but he would neither confirm nor deny if Pamon had undergone such a check, citing NCAA policy.

One BCS official who recently underwent an NCAA background check said the process included a 12-page questionnaire and dug up seemingly every checkered spot in his past, "including a speeding ticket for driving 80 in a 55."

According to the Yahoo! Sports story, Pamon worked seven seasons as an Arena Football League official and is scheduled to work for the league again in 2008. Several messages seeking comment from Arena League officials went unreturned.

In all likelihood, none of this would be an issue if Pamon's crew hadn't been so widely criticized at the end of this season. Purdue coach Joe Tiller filed a grievance with the Big Ten over what he deemed an "inordinate amount" of missed calls in the Boilermakers' 26-19 loss to Penn State, in which Pamon was the crew chief.

The Sporting News reported that the league suspended the crew for the final week of the season, Nov. 17. But Pamon's crew was allowed to officiate the game between Ohio State and Illinois on Nov. 10, when more questionable calls took place.

The Yahoo! Sports story reported no evidence that linked Pamon to gambling on games. But noted sports betting analyst R.J. Bell of Pregame.com said that in both controversial late-season games, a disproportionate amount of money was bet on the teams that benefited from the objectionable calls, though Bell said that possibly is mere coincidence. According to Bell, Penn State opened as a seven-point favorite over Purdue and closed an 8.5-point favorite, while Illinois opened as a 15.5-point underdog to Ohio State and closed as a 15-point underdog. Bell said it is unusual for a marquee team like Ohio State to be bet down.

"If a game is fixed, the benefiting team will be bet more heavily," Bell said. "And that was the case in both games in question."

Even if the Big Ten finds that Pamon in no way compromised himself as an official or violated Big Ten policies, the conversation alone could potentially be damaging.

"It raises questions -- questions about ethics, impartiality and character," Mano said. "And those are things that officials have to be held to the absolute highest standard possible. You don't want to go into a courtroom and stand before a judge and be concerned about a perception of impartiality. Officials are in that same category."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP photo/Janet HostetterBig Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany will reinforce the league's policy on background checks in the wake of allegations about Stephen Pamon
Hunt said the ACC began background checks two seasons ago, and that all the work was done by a third party. None of his officials ever failed to pass, Hunt said.

But a few years before the checks began, the ACC dismissed three officials who were charged with committing an unspecified crime away from their on-field jobs. Though Hunt declined to go into specifics, he said it involved an incident that "didn't hurt anybody else," but simply couldn't be tolerated because of the perception it would have created.

"Look, you can be a good official and still be a bank robber," Hunt said. "You can be a good official and be some sort of a wife beater. But once you commit some sort of a crime like that, that's it. Your run is over."

In the Pamon situation, Hunt said he doesn't blame Parry, the Big Ten's Supervisor of Officials who also serves as the national coordinator for NCAA football officiating and has been honored by the College Football Hall of Fame.

"He is the man of the utmost credibility and integrity," Hunt said. "I know him like a book, and there is not a bone in Dave Parry that would indicate to me or anyone else that he would allow anyone to work who could possibly be detrimental to the game."

Hunt, who worked as an official at several different levels for 50 years, believes the stories of Donaghy and Pamon are just the beginning.

"People don't want to hear this, but it ain't over," Hunt said. "I have a feeling that there's probably a lot more stories like this out there. It might not be in the NBA or at the Division I football level, but it's out there."

Mano said that more thorough background checks -- "not the ones that cost $3.50" -- are the key to stopping unethical officials before they step on the field. So, too, is a compliance program that NASO will discuss at its February board meeting in Dallas. Mano is proposing more stringent checks that include a compliance officer to constantly monitor financial and criminal records, as well as a more detailed background checks and an anonymous tip hotline.

"In the old days, they said a ref was at his best when you didn't know he was there," Mano said. "But I'm sorry, we've become public personas. This is all now part of the territory. And if somebody can't handle it, they can go home."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. Learn more about Wayne at his ESPN Fan Page: http://myespn.go.com/wdrehs.

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