At his July 24th presser, a reporter asked Stern about the conspicuous absence of words like “alleged” from his references to indicted ex-official Tim Donaghy. He replied that Donaghy’s council is in the process of negotiating a plea, clearly implying that Donaghy has admitted to betting on NBA games. So, to paraphrase the great American journalist Kent Brockman, the time has come for finger-pointing in the “zebragate” betting scandal. Ken Berger put it best in his Newsday blog (scroll to July 19th entry). No matter how big this story becomes, remember that it happened right under the noses of the league, the sportswriters, and the Vegas oddsmakers, who never removed a Donaghy-officiated game from the board.
And you know what? None of us should really be all that surprised or even particularly outraged. Of course the astonished cries of “will somebody please think of the children!?” have already started pouring in from the four corners of the ESPN “campus” in Bristol and its many satellites.
Details released about Donaghy’s propensity to reach the “over” have made many go “hmm” now that they already know the outcome. We know that Donaghy hit the “over” by calling a lot of fouls. However, he did not call the most fouls and was below the median on technical fouls despite his reputation as a no-nonsense guy. So I’ve seen nothing presented publicly–yet–that should have set off “the rogue ref alert” prior to Donaghy’s name being coughed up in an FBI investigation. Details are now emerging that make it clear Donaghy was no angel in his personal life. I have already heard the vulture’s cackling that his lone-wolf character, and any or all of his run-ins with neighbors, his postal carrier, or Joey Crawford should have tipped the league off. In a league with Ron Artest as well as Eddie Griffin in its recent employ, if any of these things register even barely on the NBA’s personal dysfunction scale it’s a much more sensitive scale than I’d have given it credit for being. Stern apparently did bring Donaghy in for tea, biscotti, and a chat about being a good citizen, acting on allegations that Donaghy gambled in Atlantic City casinos. He found nothing actionable. To any of you who have ever been at all close to a serious addict of any kind this should come as no surprise. It looks like the league did what it could while still affording Donaghy some semblance of due process. This stuff will be important to remember in the coming days as the “outrage” peddlers cobble together disparate bits of data, and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, start calling for sacrificial lambs at the league office.
So, as zebragate continues to unfold the two most important questions to consider (in the absence of new information that implicates anyone other than Donaghy) are these:
1. What did Donaghy do precisely: shave points or fix games?
The difference between the two is subtle but important. So precision is key. Not surprisingly, that distinction has been all but completely ignored on TV and radio, at least up until the time I started writing this blog entry. Point-shaving involves manipulating the composite score or the scoring margin of a game, but may not necessarily involve favoring team A to beat team B. That is, an official could call fouls on both teams sufficient to inflate the composite score, or could call enough fouls on the heavily-favored team A to allow team B to cover the spread. Game-fixing on the other hand involves pre-determining that team A will beat team B. An official might call enough fouls on team B, or perhaps team B’s star player, to put it at a disadvantage severe enough to lose. All things equal, point-shaving is far easier than game-fixing without drawing suspicion. Thus it is likely of greater interest to the house. (Bookies need the game to at least appear as if it is on the level to keep the people gambling. Otherwise what they will have is boxing, or at least the circus that currently passes for boxing.)
If it is eventually revealed that Donaghy shaved points, and did so alone, then I suspect this scandal too shall pass in time. In truth, for an official shaving points is probably no tougher than cheating a bit on his or her taxes. The league cannot do much more than it already does to prevent it short of wiretapping, a position I heard Skip Bayless advocate on ESPN’s First and 10 show. (If there is a proto-fascist position to be taken on a sports issue Bayless is your man. You can set your watch by him.) The threat of federal prosecution is the only serious deterrent to shaving or fixing. So although zebragate is ugly and may get uglier it’s not quite the “sky is falling” scenario we have seen, heard, and read about over the past few days from sports journalists whose lust for outrage and penchant for hyperbole know no bounds. Having said that, the true doomsday scenario gets triggered if Donaghy a) admits to outright game-fixing, b) is revealed to have done such, or c) pleas down in a way that makes him look guilty of game-fixing. Again, one need only look at boxing’s flea-ridden, rotting carcass to see how even the appearance of staged outcomes can suck the life out of a sport. Although it is too soon to rule out the doomsday scenario Martin Johnson’s recent piece at the Sun cites empirical research that suggests it is highly unlikely.
2. How did Donaghy do his thing?
I hope the details don’t get lost in all the inevitable hoopla. Whenever an important story breaks in the sports media first I worry that the details will simply be cut out by editors whose dedication to simple narratives about simpler times, before whatever is the perversion du jour, when players played for the love of the game, would be the envy of any old-school Soviet propagandist. Mob ties and bookies make for sexy copy, but as a serious NBA fan I’m far more interested in how an official managed to consistently rate as very good-to-outstanding yet is about to cop a plea on point-shaving (and possibly game-fixing) charges. Had Donaghy not been outed by what looks to be maybe old high school buddies he would have qualified to officiate third-round playoff games based on performance. We will likely not hear from Donaghy, but I’d love to hear from retired officials about how he might have shaved points while maintaining a profile that never set off alarm bells in New York, or in Vegas for that matter.
The devil will be in those details but just maybe the league’s salvation will be there too if it can uncover areas ripe for abuse and set up systems to monitor them. What sorts of things did Donaghy call and for what purpose? Did he “set the tone” early by calling a couple nickel-and-dime fouls to see if his colleagues will follow his lead? In games struggling to reach the over did he focus on players with foul-prone reputations? Did he call more fouls outside his area? Did he call a succession of defensive 3-seconds calls to open up the lane or did he focus on calling particular types of fouls (e.g., handchecking)? Did he make certain to put good free-throw shooters on the line to beat the spread and poor free-throw shooters otherwise? Did other officials dispute his calls? Or is this really a case where you could conceivably call a foul on every play in the NBA?