NBA Betting Scandal
With all due disrespect to Barry Bonds and Michael Vick, what’s transpired with NBA referee Tim Donaghy over the last week is, for lack of a better term, in a whole different league. Bud Selig and Roger Goodell actually have grounds for a toast, albeit one wrought with sick irony. While each of their respective enterprises, MLB and the NFL, is seeing a major scandal come to a head, their governing-counterpart in the NBA, David Stern, is smack in the middle of a s–t storm the likes of which has never been felt in professional sports.
I never thought I would defend Bonds, a blatant cheater who is going to break one of baseball’s timeless records because of performance enhancing drugs. I also couldn’t fathom trying to give perspective to Vick’s perpetuation of a cruel and sadistic hobby for profit. But now, amid allegations that Donaghy has been fixing NBA games in an elaborate criminal endeavor, in accord with members of the mob and possibly his own colleagues, I must say that Bonds and Vick are now small potatoes. For Vick, his alleged involvement in a dog-fighting ring is abhorrent, but nonetheless is mutually exclusive to his day job as an employee of the NFL. In Bonds’ case, the entire home run/steroid era of the last decade is going down in history with a collective asterisk; he’s just going to be the poster-boy because of the amount of dubious home runs he’s hit. However, right next to him will be his partners in crime, guys like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield (and many more).
The word “integrity” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to athletes and improprieties. Bonds and everyone else who’s ever juiced have exhibited very little personal integrity, which in turn has cast a shadow over the game of baseball. Likewise for Vick, and his alleged operation of animal cruelty. There are two glaring differences between them and Donaghy though. First, their actions never sought to undermine the games themselves in the name of illicit financial gain. Second, they are athletes, not officials. There have been two major precedents for players using their sports to profit monetarily, both in baseball. In 1919 the Chicago White Sox (aka the “Black Sox”) threw the World Series because they were underpaid and treated poorly by their owner, Charles Comiskey. The term “Black Sox” was in fact spawned because Comiskey was too cheap to pay for his team’s dry-cleaning, resulting in black, sordid uniforms (although history would ultimately validate the nickname). The second instance involved Pete Rose, who as we all know wagered on tons of baseball, which included his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. However, he never bet against his own team, and he was still one player on a field of nine.
What Donaghy has supposedly been doing, fixing games, is not simply on another level of the severity scale, it’s on the highest level. Why? Because he’s a referee; it’s his sole purpose to moderate games in the most unbiased of fashions. In addition, basketball is the easiest game to fix. Unlike in other major professional sports, officials in basketball actually hold sway over how many points are scored. Of course the play of the athletes is obviously supposed to dictate the amount of foul calls and not vice versa, but that’s exactly the catch. With over/unders (ie a set gambling line for two teams’ aggregate points scored) representing a huge chunk of wagers, an NBA official could very conceivably alter the final score and/or outcome of a game by calling or not calling inordinate numbers of fouls. If you watch this YouTube compilation of Donaghy and his crew calling Game 3 of this year’s Suns-Spurs series, you’ll see what I mean.
Seeing Donaghy make the latest call in NBA history for Manu Ginobili was enough to draw skepticism from both the ABC crew announcing the game as well as scores of reporters and journalists. Upon watching that entire reel from Game 3 (as well as the whole Suns-Spurs series) it is more than possible for one to come up with a variety of conspiracy theories of apparent crookedness with legitimate hard evidence to support a claim. I don’t want to speculate but I will expand on the implications of this scandal. I see a possible two-fold disaster pending for the league.
The first issue at hand is its awareness of the FBI investigation into Donaghy, which has been ongoing for nearly a year. There have been conflicting reports as to Stern’s knowledge about the federal probe, with the New York Times reporting most recently that he was not brought up to speed until after the Finals (although the New York Daily News reported that Donaghy’s neighbors in Pennsylvania were under the impression that a private investigator who was looking into Donaghy’s gambling proclivities a year ago was acting on behalf of the league). In short, if it surfaces that Stern had knowledge of any aspect of any investigation into Donaghy or Donaghy’s activities themselves and allowed him to continue calling games, this thing will snowball in the face of the commish.
Next is Donaghy himself. He will undoubtedly name names in either an effort to take heat off of himself or expose what could well be a greater referee-conspiracy. This is no doubt Stern’s worst nightmare. Whatever comes out of Donaghy’s mouth will double as a serious blow to the credibility and integrity of Stern and his league. In a statement made Tuesday Stern reinforced his belief that Donaghy was acting alone.
“We think we have a rogue, isolated criminal here,” said Stern.
Within this context Stern might as well have subbed the word “hope” for “think”, because at this point in the investigation that’s all he can really do. Once Donaghy turns himself in this week and the Feds tape recorders start rolling, this scandal could take yet another decisive turn for the ugly.
As ESPN.com’s Sportsguy aptly pointed out, this scandal is a story straight out of a Hollywood script. I agree with his vision of this imminent film, right until the ending. If this story truly followed a movie script everything would happen as Sportsguy laid out until the point where the ref (Matt Damon) is indicted and placed in protective custody while awaiting trial. At this juncture either the mob boss (Alec Baldwin) or the embattled commish (an always-shady Ron Silver) would give the word to “dispose” of the ref before the trial to avoid further damage down the line. The film would end with Damon getting approached by a few gun-toting thugs with silencers, and that would be that. A viewer would be left with the token question: was it the mob boss protecting his future interests or the corrupt-commish resorting to all and any measures to preserve his league? Both would have legitimate reasons to rid themselves of Damon and viewers could decide for themselves.
Hollywood and fiction aside, this scandal has opened a door into a dark and murky world usually left to be portrayed by art. But don’t be fooled: both the stakes and players in this devious and highly illegal scam are real, and it’s going to get a lot uglier before there is any resolution. Let’s just hope art sticks to imitating life and not the other way around.