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Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Is the NBA in Jeopardy?
The scandal involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy has certainly drawn considerable attention over the last week. In an excellent post here on our blog, Geoffrey examined whether there are persons who may be able to bring civil claims against Donaghy.
But what about the bigger question of where the NBA is going in the wake of this scandal? With that in mind, ESPN's Henry Abbott e-mailed several people earlier today with the following question:
There has been a lot of talk about the Tim Donaghy scandal as one of the most serious black eyes any professional sports league has had in recent years. At any point in this process, have you felt at all concerned for the future of the league? Why or why not?"Over on ESPN.com, Henry reveals some of the responses he received, including ones from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, ESPN basketball analyst John Hollinger, Portland Tribune columnist Dwight Jaynes, and yours truly.
Henry posted most of my comments, but here they are in their entirety:
I believe the NBA will recover from this scandal. The league has too many fans, in the U.S. and abroad, and there is too much money on the line in television and other entertainment contracts for this scandal to sink the ship. Also, while the NBA's product may not be as good as it was in the 80s, it's still undoubtedly the world's best basketball league, and that will help it absorb the scandal's fallout. In addition, I don't know of any individual scandal that ruined a major American sports league or sports organization. Major League Baseball overcame the Black Sox scandal, Pete Rose's betting-on-baseball scandal, and the steroids scandal; college football has overcome a wide array of corruption scandals; and even little league baseball overcame Danny Almonte lying about his age. It doesn't seem that individual scandals have the staying power to destroy popular sports leagues and organizations, and I don't think this one will prove to be an exception.
Having said that, I do wonder about the NBA's leadership going forward. I find it odd how the commissioner has seemed so intent on policing the players--the "kids," as he's sometimes called them, even though they are grown men--when he has overlooked a number of harmful league and team behaviors, such as teams purposefully losing games and now a ref apparently betting on games with mobsters. It would seem that instead of waging a personal war against high school players, do-rags, and night clubs, he should take a closer look at the people in his own house, the ones who may look far more like him than Allen Iverson.
Along those lines, I question the value of the NBA's internal investigation into Donaghy's activities. Stern's basic argument appears to be that Donaghy is the NBA's bad apple, and once the bad apple is removed, the barrel is saved. This is fairly standard corporate behavior when individuals engage in wrongdoing, such as sexual harassment in the workplace or hazing that occurs on college campuses: once it's clear to an organization that defending the individual is no longer worth it, the individual will be characterized as unusually malicious and a disgrace--in effect, the individual, who was previously "one of the guys," suddenly transforms into an evil person, a "rogue, isolated criminal" as Stern put it yesterday (even though Donaghy hasn't even been charged with a crime yet).
By focusing on the disposition and apparent choices of Donaghy, however, the NBA may miss to what extent its own policies and practices enabled a situation in which Donaghy could engage in wrongdoing--just like how companies and schools often miss how their own decisions enabled, or even promoted, certain apples to go bad (think about hazing and how it occurs year-after-year, with completely different students--it's not about the students, it's about the situation that colleges allow to exist). Fault, then, often needs to lie farther and wider than merely the individual wrongdoer, including all the way up to the top of the tree.
But since Stern seems motivated to limit the controversy to Donaghy, I question whether the NBA's internal review can successfully identify how far fault should lie. Even though he pledged yesterday to "do everything possible to analyze our processes," he vehemently maintained that the problem was limited to Donaghy; how can the NBA now conduct a thorough review when the Commissioner has already established its conclusion?
I believe the NBA would be better served by hiring an independent investigation agency or appointing an independent commission to look into Donaghy's actions and related NBA practices and procedures. An internal review may be in the best interests of top NBA officials, but I don't think it's in the best interests of the NBA.