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The NBA referee scandal is already having an impact on college sports

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I'm sure by now we have all heard about the scandal involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy.  I have avoided writing about it until the news matured a bit, and we could get some kind of a handle on the story.

According to this Newsday story, it looks like Donaghy is about to be arrested along with a number of associates described as "a bunch of South Jersey gamblers."  I am reluctant to comment on investigations like this early on, but when the FBI tells the press that it is going to arrest somebody, they absolutely always do.  The FBI is leaking like a sieve on this case, which in my experience means they are trying to flush out witnesses that they haven't identified yet.  That seems to always be the case when you have a long run-up to an arrest like this.

So what are the implications of this scandal for the NBA?  In the short term, horrific.  I am a casual NBA fan, but over the last few years I have watched the NBA less and less.  Why?  Simple.  When I watch college basketball, I often can make a call before the referee does, or at the same time.  Rarely does the announcer say that it was an offensive foul when I thought it was a defensive foul, or call a walk I don't see.  Not so in the NBA.

Watching an NBA game aught to be just as predictable, but it isn't.  I get it wrong over half the time, and for a long time, I blamed the fact I was watching it on TV.  But I doubt I will ever look at it that way again, and I'll bet I have plenty of company.  Now, when the referees and I disagree, the little man in the back of my head will wonder why, and remember this investigation.

Can the NBA recover from this?  Yes, but they had better do something immediately, dramatically, and do it in a way that makes them accountable to the fans for the results.  Frankly, I think this is the death-knell of David Stern's long tenure as commissioner.  If we are going to hold college presidents and athletic directors liable for the actions of their charges, how can Stern escape accountability for this scandal?  Make no mistake, this is an outrageous, calamitous event especially for the NBA, but it's effects must reach further and deeper.  Only the apparent fact that this calumny burst upon the scene virtually unannounced -- gaming regulators, investigative agencies, and the NBA itself seemed completely oblivious -- suggests that this was not some kind of conspiracy of silence.

But a lot will depend upon what Donaghy or his "associates" say at trial.  It is a good bet that others close to the NBA were involved, but it's hard to say how close.  But just as is the case with cancer, corruption like this has a way of metastasizing.  Which brings me to my next point -- could college sports be involved?

College sports has a long and shameful record of involvement with illegal gambling operations.  Like a malignancy that just keeps coming back after a remission, the point-shaving scandals of the 1950's have reappeared every decade or so in college basketball.  Until now, the NBA had largely avoided large-scale implication in illegal gambling.  But given the rapidly-deteriorating player and fan culture in the NBA, can anyone really be surprised?  David Stern may be the only person in America that is truly taken aback -- after all, he considered taking the NBA All-Star Game into the Mecca of American gambling an acceptable risk -- which further argues for a hard look at the Commish's competence.

But back to the effects on the college game.  Matt Wilson of Nashville Ballerz, a Nashville City Paper sports blog, says this scandal is dangerous not just to the NBA, but to all sports who have officials.  I think he has a point.  The Chicago Sun-Times amplifies this sentiment:

The worst thing about the gambling referee scandal is the KIAJ factor. The KIAJ is the Know-It-All Jackass -- the guy in the bar who reacts to every questionable call in every game by saying, "Ah, they got to the refs."


Now the KIAJ has some legitimacy behind his argument, with the news the FBI is investigating longtime NBA official Tim Donaghy for allegedly making big-time wagers on a number of games over the last couple of years -- including contests Donaghy worked.

So if those of us who are big fans of college hoops but only casual fans (if fans at all) of the NBA think that our favorite sport won't be affected by this scandal, we are clearly whistling past the graveyard.  ACC commissioner John Swofford worries that all the efforts applied to assuring integrity among officials may not be enough to prevent the cancer from returning to the college game:
There are 102 people on the ACC's football officiating roster and about 70 on the league's list of basketball refs.

All have undergone what commissioner John Swofford terms an extensive character check by an investigative service hired by the conference.

Yet Swofford worries.

The SEC should worry, too, as well as all sports fans.  College basketball has been hit by many more point-shaving scandals than its professional counterpart.  In my mind, and in the mind of those who remember history, that gives us a higher overall risk factor to consider.

So before we wax all sanguine about finally having cleaned up the college game, just remember -- if it can happen in the NBA under a control freak like David Stern, college basketball with its many conferences, different rules and different levels of scrutiny needs a screening -- bad.

Update [2007-7-24 14:25:31 by Truzenzuzex]:  ESPN's Marc Stein has some tough questions for David Stern and the NBA front office.