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Tim Donaghy, NBA Refs, and NBA Fans Pathetic Standards

In case you haven't heard, Tim Donaghy has written a 'tell-all' on the alleged corruption in NBA officiating.  Stern and the league office have apparently used their weight to block its release, but Deadspin got a copy...

While still in the locker room before tip-off, we would make a wager on which of us would call the game's first foul... It didn't matter if bodies were flying all over the place; no fouls were called because no one wanted to lose the bet.

Crawford wanted the game over quickly so he could kick back, relax, and have a beer; [Dick Bavetta] wanted it to keep going so he could hear his name on TV. He actually paid an American Airlines employee to watch all the games he worked and write down everything the TV commentators said about him. No matter how late the game was over, he'd wake her up for a full report. He loved the attention.

Later that week, Ronnie Nunn told me that we could have made something up at the other end against Minnesota to even things out. He even got specific - maybe we should have considered calling a traveling violation on Kevin Garnett. Talk about the politics of the game! Of course the official statement from the league office will always read, "There is no such thing as a makeup call."

Now I'm not about to stand behind Tim Donaghy. He's sleazy, has plenty of motivation to smear his form employer, and he no longer has a reputation to put on the line. But is there a single thing in those excerpts that made you say, "No effing way". Some of it seems likely, and pretty much of all of it seems at least plausible.  And that's the sad state of officiating in the NBA. When the Donaghy scandal first broke there was very little shock and outrage among fans. In fact, the most common reaction, was "Oh, I bet I know what it game was," or usually a sarcastic 'no shit.'  It's like steroids in the NFL - the evidence right in front of you, but you try not to think about it.

It's not really the terrible things Donaghy did or the charges he's laid against his former coworkers that should signal a red alert about NBA refs. The real sign of a problem is the fans reaction to the accusations -- they barely care. Pretty much every NBA fan has accepted that at some point this season there will be a game where after the final whistle blows all they will be able to say is 'WTF was that.'

That's why I doubt I was the only person who wouldn't have minded seeing the referee lockout last into the regular season -- to see the officiating reset button pressed. Some of the existing officials have been around so long that they're far more recognizable than half the players in the league. Most of them have developed egos, and clearly some of them have let their notoriety go straight to their head.  

The NBA has seemingly fed this by supporting and promoting the officials as celebrities in their own right. Remember the Charles Barkely vs. Dick Bavetta race at the all-star game a few years ago? I do because it pissed me off. It was stupid. It made light of one of the more respected officials being so old that it's funny to see him run.   And I don't think we should ever be hearing about the refs in situations outside of the game. It also enforced the fact that the more tenured refs and the leagues star players are far more friendly with each than seems appropriate.  You didn't forget the Michael Jordan/Eddie Rush story did you?

The lawsuit describes how Jordan and Knafel met:

"In the spring of 1989, Karla was working as a vocalist touring in a band that performed at a hotel in Indianapolis. After Karla's performance, Eddie Rush, an NBA referee, approached her and complimented her about her singing talent. During their conversation, Karla and Mr. Rush talked about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, who were in town to play the Indianapolis Pacers.

"Mr. Rush told Karla that he personally knew Jordan. To prove it, he telephoned Jordan at Jordan's Indianapolis hotel room and introduced him to Karla over the phone. Karla and Jordan then chatted for a while."

That is an old story, but it still happens all the time.

Karl remembers a scene he witnessed in the NBA store in New York about five years ago. It still bothers him.

"There were a couple of NBA officials in the store, and they were asking for autographs from players. And I've heard the stories that they ask for socks and ask for jerseys to be signed, and I'm hoping it's all for charity," he recalls with an uncomfortable laugh. "I'm hoping it's all for the good of giving back to the game. But it worries me. It worries me that a young official in this league has a charity or has a foundation for giving back. Sometimes, I think it's for themselves. I didn't like it."

This is something that even Major League Soccer gets right. Just this season an MLS referee was suspended two games for accepting a jersey from a player after a game. How can a league that gets so many things wrong, be so right about this.  (as an aside, FIFA officials are forced to retire at the age of 45)

The NBA at least began to acknowledge the issue with the latest collective bargaining agreement.

"The new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and National Basketball Referees Association prohibits referees from paying tips or compensation of any kind to locker room attendants or other team or arena personnel for personal services performed for referees by such personnel during games. Consequently, team and arena personnel are now prohibited from asking for or accepting tips or other compensation from referees."

It's a step in the right direction, but it hardly seems like enough to be called real progress.

There is a tendency to write off any complaint of the officiating as sour grapes, but I think that's unfair.  Nobody expects them to be perfect.  However, I think it's reasonable to wish that all we had to question about the referees was their decision making and not their integrity or motivation.  When asked about the replacement referees performance during the preseason, Rick Adelman had this to say.

"They just called things differently than the normal officials. They’re pretty much going by the book."

And I thinks that's all we are really asking for.  Maybe someday...