I’m a big advocate for due process, and it is important to remember that Tom Donaghy is innocent until proven guilty. But the major problem for the Association, the players, and the fans, is the nature of the allegations against him. We aren’t talking about a player being involved in a dog fighting ring, a player being arrested for owning or firing a gun, or even a player utilizing banned substances to better himself. This is the accusation that an official has abused his position to directly affect the outcome of NBA games for monetary gain. This is the same league that allowed a man in a flakjacket and thigh pads hurl himself into the lane night after night, getting suspect calls, and ending up with a championship ring and a Finals MVP. We’ve been joking for years about fixed games, but all of a sudden, Mark Cuban doesn’t look crazy. All of a sudden, you have to wonder about not only the 68 regular season games and 5 postseason games he presided over, you have to wonder about every game played this year, and any other year. Especially in basketball, in-game officials have ultimate control, maybe not of teams winning or losing, but of the overall points scored, sure. All a ref needs to do is call more fouls early in quarters, get both teams in the bonus, and viola, more foul shots! This could have happened once, never or often, but the point is, it looks like the ultimate trust the fan has in sport has been compromised.
Days ago, El Capitan (Papa Stern) attempted to assuage the fears that I just raised, calling Donaghy essentially a lone gunman in this whole issue. A single man acting alone is a much easier pill to swallow than some mass conspiracy of manipulators. But is this ‘rouge’ ref really the pill we, the fans, should accept? Key words mentioned in the initial report, but avoided by Stern were any, even backhanded references, to the mob or the mafia. Maybe it was because of the sensitivity of the FBI investigation, or a lack of wanting to implicate Donaghy further than he already had without a fair trial (though Stern did an AMAZING job of hurling the man under the bus yesterday, just goes to show, threaten not the throne). But, the FBI have been allegedly investigating this man for over a year, and reports have stated that he has agreed to name certain ‘criminal’ actors who contributed to his compromising of the NBA. If it is only as far as the alleged mob ties that are named, fine. Putting a dent in organized crime shouldn’t affect us as sports fans, but what if the story played out where he wasn’t recruited by people he was in debt with, but instead by another official. What if there is a sub-culture among certain officials in the NBA dedicated to aiding gamblers betting the over/under on games? Is this likely? God, I hope not. This could be the latest in a string of helping people lose faith in the legitimacy of sport, but I think it is the biggest and can only hope that this acts as a wake up call for the NBA. Stern has handled drugs, fights, international expansion, Dennis Rodman…but this is truly his most trying moment, his darkest hour. And, whether they be fans or not, the world is watching. This is the time to bring back the casual fan to the NBA, this is the time to change playoff seating, to fix to the lottery. This is the moment the Association decides if it will sink or swim.
American sports fans hate to think that gambling can affect the outcomes of games. Halls of Fame throughout the land house drug addicts, racists, cheaters, and people who you would never want to meet in a dark ally. But, the 1919 White Sox are still the Chicago Black Sox, Shoeless Joe Jackson is better known as Say it Ain’t So Joe, and the only Hall of Fame that houses Pete Rose is the WWE (please don’t ask). I have to believe that this is the defining moment where the NBA reestablishes itself as a preeminent professional sporting league in the land. I have to believe that being tested in this fire will prove to strengthen my favorite league. I have to believe in this, because right now, I don’t know what to believe.