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Weekend Thoughts: Conspiracy?

The Tim Donaghy scandal, which you can read about by clicking any number of diaries in the right sidebar, is sure to bring up nation-wide discussion of whether there are conspiracies in the NBA.  We've all heard a hundred theories from the fix being in on Game 6 of the infamous Kings-Lakers series to the "cold envelope" caper in the Patrick Ewing lottery.  It's a topic that comes up seriously every 2-3 years.  It's unfortunate for the league but really they haven't done themselves any favors.

Here's the skinny as far as I can tell:

First of all, there is absolutely no organized fix in the works.  You will never find a smoking gun memo.  You will never hear tapes of any phone calls where David Stern tells Steve Javie to help the team from the major media market win.  That's iron-clad.  First of all, it would be a logistical nightmare.   If there were an organized effort pretty much all of the referees would have to be in on it.  If they weren't they'd at least know about it because one of their number would be making odd calls and not getting reprimanded.  That's an enormous number of people to keep quiet over two decades.  Somebody somewhere--retiree, disgruntled employee, or just some honest Joe--would have leaked the info by now.  Second, if a fix were in effect it would almost have to have better results than this.  The Spurs aren't exactly a ratings magnet.  If they are trying to pre-determine outcomes either they stink at it or it's just not possible.  Third, nobody in the league would actually take that risk.  We're talking prison time and probably millions in damages if it ever came to light.  David Stern and his cronies make way too much money to risk that.  (As Paris Hilton proved recently rich people just hate going to jail.)  Referees probably don't make enough money to risk it.  A formal conspiracy simply...doesn't...exist.

That doesn't mean that bias is wholly absent, however.  The most obvious example is the well-chronicled star system, which referees themselves have admitted following.  Big names get the benefit of the calls.  This favors major media markets because it's exponentially easier to become a big name in New York or L.A. than it is in Milwaukee.   Besides the overt star system there's also the subliminal permeation of the "NBA culture".  It's widely believed that the league does better when glamour teams with charismatic stars come to the fore.  It's also true that the league has been marketed as an entertainment vehicle far more than a pure basketball vehicle in the last two decades.  Referees are as aware as anyone of that ratings/marketing bias.  They know that a call that keeps L.A. out of the next round is far more likely to be questioned by the fans, media, and league than a call that keeps Seattle out of the next round.  They also know that in the long run they do better when the league does well. Neither of these biases guarantee anything, but they do mean that the Bucks are always going to have to work a little harder to get where they want to go than the Lakers will.  Because they're there you don't really need a formal conspiracy.  People being what they are the calls will probably favor the league's pet teams and players a reasonable percentage of the time.  Everybody knows it.  That's just the NBA.

In addition you have to factor in personal and corporate bias among the referees.  Part of the Tim Donaghy story today was how borderline he had been in some of his off-court behavior.  "Self-absorbed" and "unrestrained" would be a kind way to describe it.  I don't think that's an isolated case among referees.  In fact I think it's a prerequisite for the job that you're a little wacked.  These guys are pretty much forced to always believe they're right.  They're conditioned to accept no arguments.  They're trained to ignore continuous insults thrown their way.  Eventually that single-minded obsession with the supremacy of one's own view has to sink in.  When it's coupled with an immense amount of power over the proceedings on the court you wonder why cases of vendetta-filled rogue referees aren't more prevalent than they are.  They do exist.  Nobody around here will ever forget the Jake O'Donnell-Buck Williams feud.  I don't know what Mark Bryant did or said during his first season but he was blacklisted by the refs the entire rest of his career and it killed him.  You do see personal agendas get in the way out there and it's very hard to weed that out of the game.  The Donaghy case is an extreme example but there are plenty of smaller ones.  How seriously the league takes those cases and how it deals with them are questions that need to be asked in light of this situation.  It's pretty darn likely that something along these lines could have been surmised earlier...if not the specific gambling charges at least the fact that Donaghy was probably not an appropriate candidate for an NBA referee.  Between legal protections, union protection, and the lack of suitable replacements the league may be between a rock and a hard place, but it still needs to address these issues.

The Donaghy scandal is going to be an enormous black eye for the league.  I'd surmise it's going to lead to an amazing amount of scrutiny of referees' off-court behavior, especially related to gambling, but probably won't affect their on-court practices much at all.  There might be one or two witch-hunt experiences where a particularly bad call is denounced but that's about it.

The biggest problem of all is going to be the same problem the league has always had:  perception.  If you took a poll of Americans asking which sports league is most likely to be crooked the NBA would win by a landslide.  The above-mentioned biases open the door to those thoughts.  The relative isolation of the league from its fans invites people through those doors.  For the most part in the Stern era the NBA has been an elitist, detached, monolithic entity with little or no connection to, or response to, the average fan.  It's natural for the average fan to wonder why.  One possible answer is that you're just arrogant and don't particularly care about the little guy.  Another is that you do care about reaching out but you're incompetent with your public relations.  Those answers make it hard to remain a fan, however, so many people reach for option three:  you're detached because you have something to hide.  It's natural for every fan in every sport to think that some cosmic force is cursing their team when the team doesn't win.  Because of the gap between the common guy and the NBA it's easy for fans to put a name to that mysterious, shadowed cosmic force:  David Stern, the league, the refs.   This scandal is going to be more grist for the mill.  

There were probably a hundred things the league could have done differently in the last twenty years to lessen that perception but it chose to go a different way.  The shoddy perception is a direct cost of the way the NBA has chosen to do business.  Without the star system, without the Shaq and Kobe Lakers marketing, without the league's insistence on entertainment as the steak with basketball a small lump of green beans on the side, without the elitism, arrogance, flaunted wealth, and detachment this incident probably would have drawn a response of, "How horrible that ref did that!" much the same way the Pete Rose gambling incident was perceived in baseball.  Instead this is going to be seen as one more piece of evidence that there's a systemic problem even though it's largely the actions of one man...a man who's apparently a nutcake at that.  That's sad, but again...that's the NBA. The chickens are home, and it looks like they're roosting.

--Dave (