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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, 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.



Exellent post! The most interesting part of this situation will be how it is handled by the top NBA officials. There is still much speculation about all this, but I cant help thinking that if you take the step to bet on basketball as a referee, it is likely that betting on games that you officiate isn't much of a stretch. With that follows the speculations into manipulating the spread, the over/under, etc..
If games were indeed fixed, it will be very interesting to see how the NBA top react.

In the end, I suspect Stern and the NBA top will insist that the problem is not widespread, it has now been handled, and procedures have been put in place to prevent this misconduct in the future...bla bla bla....

Anyways, great post, and I hope that you keep us updated on the progress.

Blogger Jimmy H -- 7/25/2007 11:15 PM  

I respectfully submit that it's too soon to tell whether the NBA will recover from this, although we may not have to wait very long to find out. A lot hinges on what Donaghy tells the Feds once he has turned himself in - specifically, who, if anyone, else in the league Donaghy rats out. If Donaghy could go bad for two years without attracting the attention of NBA security, so could anyone else in the league. Removing one bad apple will save the barrel only if it's done before the rot has spread.

Come to think of it, Stern himself may have unwittingly provided the most ominous sign of all for the future of the league. During his news conference on Tuesday, Stern went out of his way to praise the league's security personnel in spite of their failure to catch Donaghy before the Feds did. This says one of two things about the state of the NBA, one very bad, the other downright catastrophic.

The merely "very bad" possibility is that Stern is still in denial, that NBA security isn't as competent as Stern claims. If future developments bear this out, whatever credibility Stern now has will be ruined, and at the very least a palace coup at NBA HQ becomes a distinct possibility. The recovery process from this mess will take a long time and won't be pretty, but at least it will be possible.

On the other hand, if NBA security really is that good, and really did perform to the best of its ability, yet Donaghy (and perhaps others) still managed to evade their notice, doesn't Stern's statement amount to a tacit acknowledgment that NBA basketball, by its peculiar nature, is inherently unpoliceable, at least when it comes to gambling and game-fixing? If so, it also amounts to the NBA's epitaph as a credible major sports league.

Blogger Joshua -- 7/25/2007 11:26 PM  

If I were Stern, I'd be less concerned about Donaghy - unless it's proven that other officials were involved - and more concerned about why the league's TV ratings have been sinking like the Titanic.

Anonymous Peter -- 7/26/2007 9:20 AM  

Everyone who thinks NBA security was keeping close tabs on officials rather than looking for a player related scandal please raise your hand.

I'm not sure who was trying to lose games this year, I know Memphis was a lot better at losing before the All-Star break than after.

Blogger Mark -- 7/26/2007 9:50 AM  

Thanks for these comments.

Jimmy H,

I appreciate your kind words and I agree, the internal review seems destined to find that the problem was limited to Donaghy, especially since Stern has already announced the internal review's findings--incredulously before the investigation even begins. I also agree that if a referee bets on games with mobsters, then it seems quite plausible that he would also bet on games that he officiates.


Those are good points in favor of a wait-and-see approach to the NBA's future. You also make an excellent case for why Stern should strongly consider stepping down.


I agree, the poor TV ratings must certainly be a major concern to the NBA. I also think that some of the league's efforts to "clean up" the game seem belied by their other actions--they pass a dress code in an attempt to homogenize/moralize the league, and then they hire Ali G to do commercials wearing gold chains and bling-bling and then license the video game NBA Ballers which rewards players for accumulating mansions and women. Gotta love the consistency, there.


You're right. NBA security seemed to miss quite a bit this year all the while it attempted, with great effort and intensity, to regulate players' behavior and expressions.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/26/2007 5:48 PM  

What the NBA is most likely to do after "careful study and introspection" is to put in place a series of measures designed to catch the next referee who decides to bet on games the same way Donaghy is alleged to have done so.

Those measures will be known within the NBA and therefore will be only marginally effective at catching the next referee who decides to bet on games in a way completely different from the way Donaghy is alleged to have done so.

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 7/26/2007 8:46 PM  

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