Donaghy probe challenges referees' credibility, integrity

The Baltimore Sun

Now that it has happened, you realize with frightening clarity how feasible - and how damning - it would be for referees, umpires or linesmen to be corrupt and how lucky the four major professional sports leagues in our country have been not to have confronted this issue before.

The explosive news that Tim Donaghy, who just resigned as an NBA referee after 13 seasons, is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly betting on games he officiated, has rocked the sports world, and justifiably so. Referees are entrusted to uphold the integrity of the game.

The idea that one of them with alleged ties to organized crime willingly might have contaminated that process is numbing.

And yet, haven't we known all along how intricately connected gambling has been to professional sports? Long before Donaghy became an overnight household name, you could Google his name and find "statistics" regarding his performance against the point spread, the number of fouls he had called against specific players, as well as a team's record with him officiating. There's even a Web site called Covers.com that supplies bettors with everything they need to know about the NBA officials calling their game of interest.

There is no way to spin it: News of this investigation is a serious blow to the world's most polished professional basketball league and a commissioner, David Stern, whose integrity is above reproach. How many teams were affected? How dramatically can one referee change a game? How can anyone trust the results of games in which Donaghy was involved?

Yet numerous current referees, who have been forbidden to speak publicly, adamantly insist that Donaghy (who, don't forget, has neither been charged with nor convicted of anything yet) is the exception, not the rule.

How would you like to be an NBA referee right now? They know what's coming. They long ago assumed the role as the outpost for the ire of fans, players and coaches when the game isn't going their way. They are used to verbal abuse; it's an accepted part of their job description. You can be sure the art of baiting the men with the whistles will be ratcheted up to a new level. Any blown call will be met with heightened skepticism, cynicism and sarcasm. Any borderline call will be cause for speculation that the referee had to call it that way or he'd be sleepin' with the fishes (wink, wink).

The irony of this, one veteran NBA referee explained to me, is the officials are more accountable now than at any time in history. In the past, when referees received their assignments, they were not required to check in with their supervisors until game time. Now there is a required meeting at 11 each morning to go over tapes.

Referees have technology to quickly break down games, often within minutes of completion. It enables them to dissect their performance, reaffirming which calls they got right and examining the ones they got wrong and what factors led to the errors. Such sessions happen frequently, in the officials' locker room.

It long has been the mantra, for obvious reasons, that NBA officials must stay clear of gambling. Their contracts specifically forbid it; anyone caught frequenting a casino or engaging in any type of gambling is subject to dismissal.

I asked a number of referees whether they ever detected anything out of ordinary in the officiating of Donaghy, who, according to his colleagues, was a bit of a loner off the floor, and often an abrasive, combative referee on the court. None could come up with specific instances when they felt Donaghy acted erratically.

Explained one official: "I didn't work with him all that much, but I'm doing what everybody is doing now. I'm going back in my mind to the games we did work together. I'm trying to remember specific calls or particular discrepancies we might have had. I can't come up with anything.

"To be honest with you, I just can't get my head around it. We have certain protocols we follow in officiating a game. There's the start of the play, the development of the play and the finish of the play. You are required to carefully observe all three of them before you consider making a call. When you blow the whistle based on the development of the play and the finish of the play without seeing the start of the play, chances are you are going to make a bad call.

"Are there bad calls? All the time. Did he make some of them? Sure. None of us get it 100 percent right. Is there judgment in officiating? Of course. Human error? Of course. So how can any of us look at this and say, 'That's where he was altering the score?' It's too subtle. There are too many variables."

Donaghy's legal troubles have stunned the NBA's referees, who will meet in the weeks ahead to discuss how to handle this public relations nightmare.

"We're sick to our stomachs," explained one of the younger officials. "The hardest part is knowing now people will begin to look at us suspiciously, too."

Said another: "For the life of me, I can't imagine coming down the floor of a game and saying, 'OK, it's a 10-point difference, and I need to get it down to eight.' And I can't believe I was working with a guy that did that."

Numerous publications have reported that Donaghy was having financial difficulties. That, investigators allege, is what provided the opening to members of organized crime to make contact with him.

What kind of man would find himself in this predicament? Donaghy, say his peers, was a competent, yet not exceptional, official. He worked 20 postseason games but never the Finals. His last assignment was Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals in which the San Antonio Spurs beat the Phoenix Suns in one of the few uneventful games of that series.

Donaghy, who was a baseball player at Villanova, is the father of four girls and the nephew of highly respected (and now retired) NBA official Billy Oakes, who, friends say, is shaken by the charges. Donaghy's father was also a respected referee on the college level. If Donaghy has done what the FBI alleges, he certainly understood the magnitude of his actions.

Whether he understands what he has done to the credibility of his fellow referees is another matter.

Convicted or not, Donaghy never will officiate another NBA game. He has left this mess at the feet of his peers, who are angry, shocked and sickened but also steeled for what lies ahead: the fight to preserve the integrity they have worked a lifetime to achieve.

Jackie MacMullan writes for The Boston Globe.

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