Thursday October 2nd, 2008

The problem for the NBA in trying to deal with its referee scandal is that the league won't be credited for its efforts. The more David Stern tries to create solutions, the more the public will be reminded of the problem.

It is not unlike the attempts by track and field to test for performance-enhancing drugs in the era of Ben Johnson. Instead of being applauded for trying to clean up the mess, the positive drug tests served to deepen impressions that the whole sport was dirty. In the meantime, other leagues benefited by ignoring drug problems for as long as possible. The argument can be made that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa rescued baseball while they were all juiced up, raising the popularity of the sport to such a high point that it has been able to withstand the subsequent disgrace of its steroid age.

Here is the main thing I learned from the independent report on the Tim Donaghy scandal released Thursday: Of the 200 people interviewed by Lawrence Pedowitz's law firm, not one of them had a clue Donaghy was betting on the NBA games he refereed while providing insider information to fellow gamblers. This tells me that if another Tim Donaghy comes along, there may be no stopping him either.

Donaghy told federal investigators that he didn't alter his officiating based on his wagers. So he had it both ways, in other words: He made money off his bets without harming the integrity of the play on the court.

A lot of the smart money in this country is going to find that one hard to believe.

It was in the best interests of the league to conclude that no other referees were involved in this scandal, and that the outcomes of the games were not influenced by Donaghy. On both counts the report finds in favor of the NBA.

When Pedowitz reviewed 17 NBA games that had been brought into question by Donaghy, the investigator relied on the counsel of three NBA executives -- director of referee development Ronnie Nunn, VP of basketball operations and officiating performance analysis Paul Brazeau, and VP/director of officials Bernie Fryar -- who reviewed video of Donaghy's work to the conclusion that he had not changed calls in order to win bets. This was a crucial verdict on behalf of the NBA. I am in no way besmirching the integrity of Nunn, Brazeau and Fryar when I point out the obvious conflict: It was in the best interests of their employer that Pedowitz should conclude there was no game-fixing involved.

I asked the commissioner during his news conference Thursday about whether the NBA was in effect policing itself. Here is Stern's entire answer: "We encouraged Mr. Pedowitz to review that review. So he participated in the review, as well. And I can assure you that the instructions that went out to the people who were doing the reviewing, and by the way the tapes were turned over to the FBI and the Justice Department for their review; so we were pretty much feeling a good handle on that, and we subjected each of our reviewers to cross-examination by Mr. Pedowitz as well.

"So there was a community of interest that was designed to get to the facts as best we possibly could. And we also had observer reports from those games and pre-existing reviews on a correct and incorrect basis. So there was a pretty extensive set of reviews done on those games.

"We start with the FBI and the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney's Office -- they're part of the Department of Justice -- but the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI investigating for the very same thing you're talking about, and then we checked it against our own observer review. Then we did an independent deep dive under Larry Pedowitz's supervision, and subject to his cross-examination.

"So I don't know what to argue to you or tell you. And we don't profess to a degree of certainty; all we say is that we found no reason to conclude that the U.S. Attorney and the FBI were incorrect in their finding that there was no criminal activity about game manipulation, period. So there were multiple sets of reviews.''

As Pedowitz writes, Donaghy told federal investigators that he didn't alter his officiating because he didn't want to be caught by his supervisors. This might very well have been true.

Moving forward, the NBA is promising to be more transparent in its oversight of officiating. Referees may give interviews after games, fans will have access to more information, and a hotline will be created for players, coaches, referees and others to provide anonymous information on suspicious activities.

I've been arguing for a long time that the NBA should use this scandal to create an entirely new relationship between pro sports and betting. All of the leagues in our country have maintained an old-world approach to gambling based on the 1919 Black Sox scandal. It sounds as if Stern has seen the light.

"It's clear to me as more and more money is bet on a global scale on sports -- and it doesn't seem to be going down, it's only going one way, up, and more legalized than ever before -- that the review of data of all types is going to be institutionalized, almost like computer programs having to do with the stock market,'' Stern said. "So edges are going to be looked for and people are going to have filters and the like.

"I just think that we all in sports have to be mindful that everything we do, and the circumstances that are within our control, are going to be the subject of extreme analysis, and particularly an analysis that can be affected, impacted or moved by statistical data. I'd say that's the wake-up call for all sports on an ongoing basis.''

And yet the next time there is a questionable call, the sports bettors throughout America will be reminded of Tim Donaghy much the same as fans of another sport incessantly recall the legacy of Ben Johnson.

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