Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Donaghy's new allegations speak to basketball fans' worst fears

Photo: A screen capture of SI's original Tim Donaghy story from beRecruited.

Well, the NBA has managed to find a way to blow it yet again. The Tim Donaghy scandal had almost died down, and all of a sudden, the league starts demanding $1 million he doesn't have in restitution. In response, Donaghy's lawyers file letters and documents with the sentencing court alleging that officials altered the outcome of at least two specific games or playoff rounds: Game Six of the Los Angeles Lakers - Sacramento Kings Western Finals clash in 2002 and the Houston Rockets - Dallas Mavericks series in 2005.As respected ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson writes, accusations that easily could have stayed quiet have now become a dark shadow cutting to the very heart of the league.

"Donaghy's sentencing is scheduled for July 14. He faces a maximum of 25 years in prison for conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce. In the usual course of presentence investigations and procedures, the federal probation department asks the 'victim' about the damage resulting from the crime. As a 'victim' of Donaghy's crimes, the NBA claimed in a June 5 letter that it was entitled to $1 million in restitution from Donaghy. Restitution, or the reimbursement of the victim's losses, typically pays back a bank or a charity for money lost in an embezzlement or a theft. Donaghy obviously damaged the NBA and its reputation, but there is no indication he stole any money from the league. The NBA claimed that it was forced to spend the nice round sum of $1 million investigating Donaghy and the damage he caused, and the league wants its money back. Clearly enraged by the unexpected demand from the NBA for $1 million, Donaghy and [his lawyer John F.] Lauro retaliated with detailed accusations of manipulation by other referees. It is the worst nightmare for the NBA, which might now be reconsidering a withdrawal of its demand for restitution."

Here are the key allegations, from ESPN.com's story:

"Jeff Van Gundy ultimately backed off comments that a referee told him officials had targeted Yao Ming in the Houston Rockets' 2005 first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks. Maybe Van Gundy was right after all.
A letter sent to the sentencing court on behalf of convicted former referee Tim Donaghy outlines just such a plan. It also alleges that referees helped alter the outcome of the controversial 2002 Game 6 playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
The letter also details an incident in the 2002 playoffs in which Donaghy alleges that two referees, who were known as NBA "company men," wanted to extend a series to seven games. "Team 5" could have wrapped up the series in Game 6 but saw two players foul out, lost the game and ultimately the series.
Only one series went to seven games in the 2002 playoffs: Lakers-Kings.
Donaghy also alleges that team executives conspired with the league to prevent star players from being called for too many fouls or being ejected. He claims that league officials told referees that doing so would 'hurt ticket sales and television ratings.'"

And two more from the New York Times:

"In their letter, Lauro and Donaghy make a number of other charges, among them:
That referees “socialized frequently with coaches and players” and asked for autographs and free merchandise, in violation of league rules.
That a referee’s relationship with one team’s general manager “led to an attempt by that referee to influence a game’s outcome” in 2004. Donaghy claimed that the referee in question told him that he planned to favor the general manager’s team in a game that night."

Lone Gunmen everywhere let loose a simultaneous shout of exultation when this news broke. Finally, all the debates about questionable NBA officiating and the league's conspiracy to influence the playoffs in favour of TV-rating darlings over the years (summarized nicely in this Basketbawful post by Matt McHale) have some tangible evidence from someone on the inside to back the conspiracy theory. Considering how well these theories have done over the years without this, this could be what kicks them into high gear. As Munson writes, this is perfect ammunition for those who question the NBA's credibility, especially because Donaghy's now naming specific instances. "The accusations are the kinds of things that fuel conspiracy theories that abound among NBA fans, but Donaghy is now adding dates, places and games," he writes.

If this was any other sport, this might not be as believable. However, this merely confirms fans' deepest fears about the dark side of the NBA. We already know Donaghy may have "subconsciously" influenced games [The Smoking Gun] in favour of his gambling positions, and that wasn't picked up for a long time: from there, it isn't a huge jump to other referees influencing games in favour of what the league sees as best for itself. Then you get situations in this year's playoffs like the Derek Fisher-Brent Barry incident and the foul discrepancies in Game Two of the Finals. In both cases, a result that just happened to be extremely convenient for the league occurred. Coincidence? Perhaps, but the more times these "coincidences" happen, the harder it becomes to believe that there's nothing to see here.

Donaghy picked a couple of strong examples to release, as well, further helping his cause. Many people have suspected that Lakers-Kings game (and series) was rigged ever since it happened (and Sacramento Bee columnist Ailene Voisin rather presciently predicted last summer that the Donaghy investigation might turn up new material on that fiasco). It was such a ridiculous game that even Ralph Nader called for an investigation, as detailed in Voisin's piece above. The Yao Ming scenario was also interesting: it led to ABC broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy commenting on the air that a working referee had told him that the refs were clamping down on Ming after Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban complained (the Mavericks won the series in seven games). Van Gundy was fined $100,000 by the league for his comments, but they're looking pretty accurate now. During halftime of tonight's game, he said he still thinks Ming was unfairly targeted but he doesn't give Donaghy any credibility: you have to wonder how much of that is just window dressing to avoid another fine, though.

In my mind, the biggest problem this produces is that the NBA can never completely prove its innocence, even if it turns out that they are innocent. No amount of denials is going to take away the suspicions in the minds of many, especially seeing as many of those doubts were implanted long before Donaghy came out with this latest information. We already know that David Stern doesn't particularly value truthfulness or history: now, the question is if he values the integrity of the game, or if the TV ratings are more important. The problem is, we may never really know for sure.

The last word on this matter should go to the National Post's Bruce Arthur, who rather brilliantly called this almost a year ago. Here's some of the best bits from his July 21, 2007 column on the Donaghy scandal (bolding mine), appropriately titled "Donaghy may become NBA's worst nightmare" with the kicker "Referee Scandal Could Rock League To The Core."

"After Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals, a Miami Herald columnist reported -- erroneously, as it turned out -- that after a controversial finish, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban turned towards the seats of NBA commissioner David Stern, and screamed, "F---you! F---you! Your league is rigged!"
Cuban never said it, and the columnist later issued a correction. He had reported it because someone told him it happened, and frankly, because it sounded plausible. One, because Cuban is a hothead. And two, because in the NBA, every conspiracy theory is believed.
Now, there appears to be an actual conspiracy. The New York Post first reported yesterday that an NBA referee is being investigated by the FBI for fixing the point spread in a number of games, in concert with organized crime, over the last two seasons."
Welcome to David Stern's worst nightmare. Bar none.
For that matter, if the allegations prove true, this is the worst nightmare of every sports league. The players can be criminals, and the games can be one-sided, and hell, Ron Artest could wade into the crowd and beat up a different fan each and every night. But when the integrity of the game is wounded, when that bedrock is cracked, it robs the game of all significance.
This is not steroids in baseball, or labour trouble in hockey, or even Michael Vick's sickening dog-fighting case. The only worst-case scenario is if a star player is the one doing the fixing, and even that may not be as bad. But a star is an aberration, a Pete Rose. A team is the 1919 Chicago White Sox. An official, at least in terms of perception, is institutional.
And in this case, this particular institution is an easy target. For some reason, people are perfectly willing to believe the worst about the NBA.
To be fair, gambling has had its tendrils threaded through in the NBA for years. Michael Jordan was a legendary gambler, at cards and on the golf course, and it was long speculated that his first retirement, in 1993, was in part league-ordered because of Jordan's alleged gambling problems. The 1997 book Money Players -- written by investigative reporter Armen Keteyian, New York Times columnist Harvey Araton, and investigative reporter Martin Dardis -- details allegations that Isiah Thomas wagered thousands in illegal dice games. There are more stories, whispered about throughout the league.
But none of those tendrils had ever demonstrably reached on to the court. Until now.
Now, every decision Donaghy made in the last two years will be scrutinized, again. And now, Stern is facing perhaps the biggest crisis of his 23-year tenure.
NBA referees have always been faced with more suspicion than in any other sport -- the league favours superstars, etc. And at every turn, Stern has vigorously defended his officials -- from charges of home-court bias, of incompetence, or of race bias, which was recently floated in a university study.
Now, if this gambling allegation is true, every borderline fan can suspect any call he or she doesn't like. My brother, a lifelong NBA fan, soured on the league after those 2006 Finals, in which Miami's Dwyane Wade seemed to get the benefit of every call. Many other fans went with him. How many more are on the ledge after this? Moreover, how does the NBA put a team in Las Vegas? How does the league maintain its integrity? How does it recover?
But this has the potential to bloody the NBA, and badly. This might have been the worst season in NBA history -- the short-lived change of basketballs, the injuries, the tanking, the whining, the All-Star fiasco (in Vegas, natch), the dead-dull playoffs, the playoff-altering suspensions, and finally, a dreadful NBA Finals.
But this is different. This might be the worst poison of all."

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