Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tim Donaghy offering the NBA a Stern test of faith

This morning at 11:00 AM National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern is going to face the most important media conference in the 23 plus years he’s led the NBA. Stern will face what is sure to be a media circus when Stern addresses the allegations former NBA official Tim Donaghy allegedly participated in a scheme to fix NBA games he officiated in during the past two NBA seasons. In no uncertain terms while today’s press conference isn’t going to resolve anything, it will be an important first step in helping David Stern begin the process of restoring a sense of order to the NBA. It wouldn’t be an understatement to suggest the NBA’s future could be on the line in the coming days, weeks and months – and one of the biggest questions that need’s answering, is David Stern ready for the toughest challenge of what has been an amazingly successful career as NBA commissioner.

Stern began his tenure as the NBA’s fourth commissioner on February 1, 1984. Since then, the NBA has added seven franchises; enjoyed a fifteen-fold increase in revenues; expanded its national television exposure dramatically; and launched the Women’s National Basketball Association and the NBA Development League. Interest generated by the league’s growing international initiatives has led to the televising of NBA games in 215 countries in 43 languages. NBA TV, the league’s 24-hour television network which launched in 1999, is available in 73 countries. The leagues’ Web sites, NBA.com, WNBA.com and NBADLEAGUE.com attract more than three million visitors a day, with more than half of them coming from outside the U.S.

Stern began his association with the NBA in 1966 as its outside counsel and during the years before he became commissioner he had a hand in virtually every matter that would shape the league and the structure of professional sports, including the 1976 agreement between the NBA and its players leading to free agency; the collective bargaining agreement that introduced the salary cap and revenue sharing; professional sports’ first anti-drug agreement; and the creation of NBA Entertainment, a marketing, television and multi-media production company that has been telling the NBA story in award-winning fashion for two decades.

Stern’s tenure has been marked by an intense commitment to social responsibility both in the United States and around the world. In 2005, the league launched NBA CARES, through which the NBA, its players and teams have committed to donating $100 million to charity, providing a million hours of hands-on service and creating 250 places where kids and families can live, learn or play. NBA CARES supports a host of community outreach initiatives including Read to Achieve, the Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA, Basketball without Borders and a myriad of internationally-recognized youth-serving programs that focus on education, youth and family development, and health-related causes. The NBA and its players have also supported, among other causes, volunteerism, child abuse prevention, drug abuse prevention, hunger relief, HIV/AIDS awareness and the Special Olympics.

When Commissioner Stern meets the media this morning (an event that is expected to be televised live by the three major national cable news networks, ESPN, most regional sports cable networks and NBA TV), Stern knows full well not only will the eyes of sports and basketball fans be on him, but NBA owners, players and league officials will be glued to their TV hoping Stern can begin the process to stemming the apocalypse that threatens to destroy the credibility of professional basketball.

Most key NBA officials have remained tightlipped regarding the Donaghy allegations. One person who has often been very critical of NBA officials and in particular how their calls may have affected his teams’ games, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Using his blog to help deliver his message, the outspoken Cuban more often than not a foe of Stern’s has made it very clear – Mark Cuban has complete confidence in David Stern’s ability to handle this crisis.

“Every company of any size has had a problem(s) that its CEO and stakeholders have lost sleep over. Its the law of big numbers. If enough things go on, something is going to go wrong.

“Products get recalled or are tampered with. There are workplace disasters. There is corruption. No industry is immune. Churches, consumer products, law enforcement, cars, planes, trains and plenty more. No profession is immune. From the CEO who misrepresents corporate numbers or events at the expense of shareholders, to the doorman who tips himself from the cover charge at the expense of the club owner, people of every profession make bad decisions.

“Shit happens. Bad Shit happens. When it does, there are two options. Cry over it and do nothing or recognize the problem and do the best you possibly can to not only fix it, but make the entire organization stronger..

“As bad as the allegations facing the NBA today are, its also an opportunity to face every allegation that has ever been directed towards the NBA and its officials and preempt them from ever occurring in the future.

“Calamity can be a catalyst for significant change.

“There are any number of examples in the business world where calamity led to better management, better communications, greater transparency and even better products. As the proverb goes, Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

“The NBA took a hit today. Behind that hit is a catalyst and opportunity for significant change that could make the NBA stronger than it ever has been. It’s a chance to proactively put in place people, processes and transparency that will forever silence those who will question the NBA's integrity.

“I have complete confidence that David Stern and Adam Silver will do just that and the NBA and our officiating will be all the stronger for it.”
There are many more than everyone connected with the NBA waiting for David Stern to help lead the NBA through this crisis. College basketball officials are as concerned as their NBA peers about how the full frontal assault on their profession.

"If it's true, and the initial reports indicate that it is, then it's a huge black eye on all officials, at all levels," veteran college referee Rick Hartzell, who also serves as Northern Iowa's athletic director but refuses to officiate any game with a fellow Missouri Valley team to avoid a conflict of interest told ESPN.com. "People are now going to look that if someone at the highest level of officiating can be bought or swayed to have an impact on a game, then maybe everybody can.

"It paints all of us in a horrible light. It's a very, very sad thing. I hope that somehow people look at this as an individual who made a mistake and don't paint us with the broad brush, but it's a huge black eye."

Veteran official Mike Wood believes according to an ESPN.com report that fans are more hostile today -- and if a controversial call is made, right or wrong, he said officials will hear comments alluding to the Donaghy scandal.

"Every call will be scrutinized at the end of the game," Wood said. "It's a black eye for the sport, if the allegations are true."

"This will open up a situation for someone to say that, 'I told you so. Those guys in stripes are less than honest,'" said John Clougherty, a longtime official and now ACC head of officials. "Any time a fan loses a bet, he's going to say the official is on the take. It just worries me, whether you're in the NBA or college, we're going to have to fight an image problem. Our integrity has been damaged, without question."

"As an official, integrity is all that you have," Wood said. "If Mike Wood has integrity and is honest, that doesn't mean he won't miss a call. It's part of the game. But I'm missing them honestly. Sometimes fans don't understand that. Any controversial call will now be, 'OK, he's betting on the game.'"

"You'd have to have a play that impacted the score that you can call," said Hartzell, who officiates primarily Big Ten, Big 12 and Horizon games. "There are certain plays that officials don't call from certain points on the court. If you're 60 feet from the play, you can't rush in there and put someone on the line or call an offensive foul and take the ball away. If you did it more than once or twice, then someone is going to say 'Something is going on here.'

"It's hard to fathom that someone could have influence in a game in a way that you could guarantee that it would be under seven [points] or over eight [points] or however it works. You'd really have to stretch the bounds of officiating to get it done."

It’s easy to understand why NBA officials are as concerned as they are about the impact Tim Donaghy is going to have on their reputations and on their industry – their ability to be treated professionally. NBA officials earn between $100,000 and $300,000 annually and arguably have the toughest job in sports and without any hesitation potentially the greatest impact on the outcome of a game of any of their counterparts in other sports. Five fouls a college basketball player is out of game, six in the NBA. A seasoned official always makes the right foul call, but from time-to-time even the best basketball official makes a mistake in calling a foul on the wrong player. An offensive charge can be called a defensive block.

Irregardless of how the NBA frames the crisis in confidence (and rest assured David Stern will offer a Tour de Force today) human nature dictates at least for the foreseeable future every close call basketball officials make is going to be second guessed. That isn’t fair, but thanks to Tim Donaghy, basketball officials face a very difficult season.

"That doesn't mean that once in a while you wouldn't go out of your space if your partner didn't see a play," said Hartzell, who used to referee in the ACC with Donaghy's father Jerry. "But to be able to think you could do that for an entire 48-minute or 40-minute game, to manage that point spread, seems almost impossible to do. I don't have experience and don't want any, but it would be hard to do it without scrutiny from the people who hire you. The light would go off immediately."

ESPN.com’s Wayne Drehs spoke with Brandon Lang, whose life story was immortalized by Matthew McConaughey in the 2005 film, "Two for the Money”. Lang offered some insight into betting on NBA games.

“You can bet on who's going to win, by how many points. You can bet whether it's going to be a high-scoring or low-scoring game with the over/under. You can bet the first, second, third or fourth quarter. You can bet the first-half and second-half winner or loser. What you have to understand is that gambling is always designed to keep people watching.

“If it's a televised game or the playoffs, you can bet the over/under on total points for a player, say whether or not LeBron James is going to score 30. You can bet over/under on rebounds for a guy like Tim Duncan. There are a lot of individual prop bets, but normally those are only in the playoffs or for major regular-season televised games.”

One issue Lang offered ESPN the difference between legalized sports betting in Las Vegas, off-shore (online sports betting) which is now banned in the United States, or betting with a bookie (illegal sports betting).

“Most of the time, when you bet with a bookie, you can bet on credit. When you bet offshore, you have to post up that money. I have to wire that offshore sports book $1,000 so I have $1,000 in my account to play with. As soon as I double my money, I can ask them to send $1,000 back or all $2,000, whatever. With your bookie, you typically settle up once a week. And that's when people get in trouble. It's credit -- usually somebody vouches for you, they'll give you a $5,000 line or something like that. Then you start getting behind, you start chasing and the next thing you know you just lost $7,000 and you don't have it. In Vegas and offshore, you have to post your money before you gamble with it.”

Donaghy allegedly was involved with bookies. According to various media reports Donaghy’s problems began after he placed and lost NFL bets to bookies. The bookies then turned the debts Donaghy had into an opportunities to pre-determine the outcome of games (usually against the point spread) where Donaghy was officiating. Who or what exactly is a bookie – this from Lang.

“He's basically the sports book. He has his own line, his own money. He runs his own book. Different bookies will have different lines. To get into the various intricacies, most players want to have multiple bookies because lines can vary. If I have a guy in New York who has the Knicks as a 6.5 point favorite against the Nuggets and I have another guy in Florida who has the Knicks at 5.5, I'm going to take my bookie in New York and take Denver and then take New York with the bookie in Florida and lay the 5.5 points. If the final margin is six points, then I'll win both.”

Lang a self-proclaimed “big-game handicapper” given his background was asked by ESPN if he believed bookies and organized crime could have used Tim Donaghy along the lines of the allegations that have been reported.

“You see a lot of calls in the NBA, "Hey -- he didn't even touch him." But he's [under suspicion] because they will go back and watch every game he officiated, know the spread, know the totals, they'll watch the fourth quarter and they'll know exactly what games he [allegedly] fixed. One hundred percent, no questions asked, they'll know exactly.

“They just have to look at the fourth quarter. That's where you'd be able to tell. I'm telling you -- it would have to be the total, not the winners or losers. You can't dictate a side, especially in the NBA. He couldn't take that chance. If someone gets injured or doesn't show up or is having a terrible night or whatever, you can't do it. But manipulating the total you can control from the very tip. If you need an over, a referee can dictate a high- or low-scoring game just by how he's calling it. It's going to come out.

“If he has action on the game and wants something in particular to happen, I'd say 75 percent. I've been asked for years if games could be fixed. And I always told people not by players. Because the guys in the key positions who could get something done, your quarterbacks and running backs, are making millions and aren't going to risk it all to help some friend make $100,000. An official, though, could do it. In the NFL, there's a task force that on Monday reviews every critical call that came anywhere near the point spread. I don't believe that's ever been done in the NBA.”

And as Lang made clear – the “mob” has a long history linked to illegal sports betting – suggesting the obvious no one should be surprised by the allegations and charges linking an NBA official, allegedly deep in debt to organized crime, tarnishing his entire profession.
“The mob has had its hands in fixing and shaving games going back to the late '40s. They've always been under question for getting teams to shave points. The fact that they finally got to an official -- well, at least an official who got caught -- isn't surprising. Listen, this is just the first guy to get caught. I think, without question, there are more officials out there who have shaved points. I guarantee you there are. This is just the first guy to get caught.

“And it's going to be fascinating to see how this all plays out because [if the allegations are true, it's my opinion that] he's going to cut a deal and rat on everybody. And it was a mob bookie that supposedly turned him in. That was the worst thing they ever could have done. They turned him in, now he's going to give them all the evidence, spill everything and then go in the witness protection program. I don't get it. He was their meal ticket. Whatever risk they had with him, turning him in was a bad move. Now he's going to be dropping dimes on them.”

All that aside one of the first questions Stern is bound to be asked to address this morning -- “Bad Bets: Understanding the N.B.A.’s Anti-Gambling Rules”. The document in question is an eight page pamphlet that outlines in finite detail “all players and league personnel are barred from gambling on any league game, including those in which they do not participate. Rules for referees go considerably further. They are prohibited from “participating in any gambling or placing bets of any kind.”

One of the biggest issues Stern is going to have to deal with, how effective is NBA security if Tim Donaghy managed to get away with betting on NBA games, let alone the allegations Donaghy bet on NFL games. The information in “Bad Bets: Understanding the N.B.A.’s Anti-Gambling Rules” is clear – NBA officials are not allowed to make bets of any kind. If you want to bet you can’t retain or become an NBA official. David Stern can (and he will) suggest what may have happened with Tim Donaghy is one “isolated case” but one case is one case too many for any sports league who believes in their in-house security systems management team. Clearly there are serious issues David Stern and the NBA must address when it comes to who left the barn door open for Tim Donaghy to run out of and make a mockery of the NBA.

“The financial difficulties experienced by problem or compulsive gamblers would make affected N.B.A. referees easy targets for individuals involved in the gambling business,” the pamphlet reads according to The New York Times who obtained a copy.

“Everyone thinks of point-shaving scandals as involving players, but I’ve always felt at this point it would be a referee,” said Bryan Leonard, a professional sports bettor and handicapper in Las Vegas for 24 years in a New York Times report. “In the N.B.A., players are making millions of dollars. They don’t need the money. What do referees make?” (NBA officials as reported earlier in this insider report make between $100,000 and $300,000 a year, plus expenses).

The clock starts ticking for the greatest challenge a major league sports commissioner has faced in recent memory at 11:00 AM. Good luck Commissioner Stern, you’re going to need all the luck in the world to get the NBA through this crisis.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN.com and The New York Times

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