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Can We Fix It? Well, How Much Money Do You Have?

Tim Donaghy has supplanted Bob the Builder as the most famous Fixer on basic cable.  By the way, Dizzy the cement mixer might come in handy if Donaghy's new associates need to fit the ref with some new shoes.  

A wise man once explained to me how the NBA might be able to use a small number of trusted refs to manipulate the outcome of games without drawing too much attention to the ploy.  Yet I for one remain pretty skeptical of any league-wide conspiracy theories.

(FWIW, there's one overriding reason why I don't believe in conspiracy theories:  they tend to rely on a level of sophistication in the conspirators that I just don't give them credit for.  How could the Bush Administration have planned 9/11?  They can't even successfully plant a yellowcake story in Niger.  How could the NBA willfully be manipulating the outcomes of games with a hundred refs in the league and 3 men on every crew without anyone spilling the beans?  They can't even get the playoff format right.)

It is of course a much different thing to discuss the corruption of one individual versus a league-wide conspiracy.  If indeed Donaghy manipulated games on which he or his 'associates' placed wagers, it wouldn't be the first time something like this has happened.  Indeed, with the amount of money to be made in sports gambling, it's probably more surprising that relatively poorly paid principals like refs and college athletes aren't corrupted more frequently.  Of course, maybe they are and we just don't find out about it most of the time.

What does it say about the league?  Well, I'm certainly not the first to observe that this news was received not as shocking but inevitable.  Many seemed almost relieved.  'I KNEW something fishy was going on with the refs!  See?  I'm not paranoid.'

Still, while I wish I had written a scathing critique of the refs from Game 3 of the Suns-Spurs series that I could point to now with an 'I-told-you-so' post, I have yet to see a smoking gun with Tim Donaghy's fingerprints on it.  Bill Simmons correctly pointed out that it was a horrifically bad job by the crew of Greg Willard, Ed F. Rush and Donaghy in Game 3.  I remember well at the time thinking that the Suns got screwed by the refs in that one.  BUT, the most egregious problem was the way that the refs allowed Bruce Bowen to manhandle Steve Nash.  Bowen ended up with two personal fouls in the box score - one when he blatantly kneed Steve Nash in the groin (no one could have let that go), and the other with under three minutes to play after the game was out of reach.  In a crew of three refs, it is impossible for one crooked ref by himself to impose game-wide non-calls.  That was 'incompetent refs giving the player with the great defender reputation playing at home the benefit of every doubt' not 'crooked ref manipulating the over under.'

Of course, a ref could get whistle happy on a team's star, affecting the outcome.  And indeed, Amare Stoudemire was forced to sit the entire third quarter and half of the fourth when he picked up a quick fourth foul, followed by a quick fifth foul.  But in trying to find out who called those fouls, this YouTube clip shows that it was Ed F. Rush who called the (atrocious) fourth foul, and I don't know who called the fifth one.  Surely the conspiracy theorist who put the YouTube clip together would have included Stoudemire's fifth if it was (a) suspect or (b) called by Donaghy.

So, yes, Donaghy is being investigated by the FBI for fixing games, and yes, he was present during a horrendously bad officiating job in Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns.  But no, I don't see how he manipulated the outcome unless he somehow had Willard and Rush complicit in the scheme.  The things that were most significant (non-calls in Bowen's defending of Nash and Stoudemire's foul trouble) required more than one ref.  Simmons admitted as much when he first criticized the officiating in that game:  

I don't even think the refs were biased -- they were so incompetent that there was no rhyme or reason to anything that was happening.

Of course we don't even know where Donaghy had his money in that game.  If the investigation finds out that he had it on the Spurs to cover, then it remains interesting.  By the way, for the game as a whole, there were 22 fouls called against the Spurs - 24 against the Suns.  

Having said all of that, this incident does illustrate an ongoing problem in the NBA.  There is a sense of infallibility from David Stern and Stu Jackson down that says 'Everything is great, because we're the NBA and we say everything is great.  Trust us.'  Refs are supposed to be reviewed and evaluated.  We all see how bad they are, how they blatantly miss calls, how they affect the outcome of games.  But as far as David Stern and Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn are concerned, everything is perfect, the officials have never been better, the review and evaluation process is perfect, and no official has ever missed any call, ever.  If the NBA was mature enough to admit it's mistakes, it would go a long way towards ending the conspiracy talk.  But when Steve Javie and his crew miss a game-changing call in the final seconds of a game in late March with massive playoff implications and then the league simply refuses to comment on it, it fuels the conspiracy fire.  Unfortunately, the media tends to be complicit in all of this, not wanting to bite the proverbial hand: announcers rarely criticize calls during games; the written press all but ignores the issue.

So now you have an official who was supposedly fixing the outcomes of games to help himself and mobsters make money.  Did Ronnie Nunn notice anything untoward in his vaunted review process?  Did the other two officials on Mr. Donaghy's crew ever mention to anyone that his actions seemed a little suspect?  Here's the real question:  why is the FBI telling the NBA about all this?  Wouldn't it really be the other way around, if David Stern et al were simply paying attention?  But the NBA is so busy insisting that everything is fine, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they completely missed two years worth of mob-influenced officiating.  There's a lesson here:  if you're willing to accept incompetence, the next step is malfeasance.  

So, like everyone else, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Was Tim Donaghy one bad apple as David Stern insists?  Are we going to get details on specific games, lines, bets, and calls he made?  If indeed this was going on for two years, he must have had specific actions that he could proudly/shamefully enumerate that justified his continued employment (or continued use of his kneecaps, as the case may be).  

And most importantly, is the NBA going to pull it's collective head out of it's ass the sand.