King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA ref scandal, Michael Vick, dope-crazy Tour de France. That'll teach this column to leave the keyboard for a month.


Salon Staff
July 30, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

I had to come back from vacation before Barry Bonds hit five home runs in a game to break the career record, then pulled the skin off his face to reveal that he's really D.B. Cooper -- and by the way Rich Aurilia is Amelia Earhart.

That seemed about due to happen after a year's worth of sports blockbusters that broke during the four weeks while I was trying to figure out where I'd packed the nose-hair clippers before moving the family 2,054 miles west.

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The NBA was hit with the biggest officiating scandal in its history and perhaps the biggest gambling fiasco in American sports since the City College point-shaving affair in 1951. Details emerged about the alleged dogfight ring on Michael Vick's property in Virginia and Vick was indicted on federal charges. The Tour de France toppled into complete irrelevance when the latest spate of drug revelations included the leader and apparent eventual winner being kicked out of the race by his own team.

The psychodrama of the widely reviled Bonds, poster child for all that's crooked and wrong about sports these days, approaching the sainted Hank Aaron's career home run record -- he stood one shy Sunday night as I finally located my box of cherished RuPaul memorabilia -- managed to seem like a quiet, almost quaint sort of thing.

Remember those innocent days when we were capable of being shocked by revelations about ballplayers using steroids? Twenty-three skiddoo.

Though the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal is a few months old now, the sickening details of what investigators allegedly turned up on his property came out this month, and Vick showed up in court and pleaded not guilty to federal conspiracy charges involving competitive dogfights.

That set off a national public discussion about dogfighting, one that didn't seem to get much further than most people agreeing that the practice is barbaric and wrong, though, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel pointed out, there's an interesting racial divide on the issue of Vick's guilt or innocence.

Outside Vick's arraignment hearing, Wetzel noted that animal-rights protesters calling for Vick's hide were almost unanimously white, while counterprotesters arguing that Vick, who is black, deserves due process were mostly black.

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If only I could have remembered that my computer was in that box with the stuffed animals, steak knives and Ace bandages, I might have written that I'd like to come down on both sides. That people who breed and train and watch and bet on fighting dogs are scum, but Vick deserves his day in court without first being crucified.

Entire countries have given up on the Tour de France as a legitimate athletic event, the media bidding it adieu until or unless it can clean up its doped-to-the-gills act, upon which don't bet your last vial of testosterone.

Tour leader Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the race by his teammates for lying about why he'd missed two dope tests prior to the season. He'd told Danish cycling authorities he'd been in Mexico, but he'd been spotted training in Italy. He was the first race leader in Tour de France history to withdraw -- and the third rider to leave this year's Tour amid drug charges in 30 hours.

"After a crescendo of scandal and shame over many years," wrote Tour historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the International Herald Tribune, "the Tour de France ... had collapsed into complete and truly farcical ignominy."

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Wheatcroft has a soft spot for the Tour. "Complete and truly farcical ignominy"? He soft-pedaled it.

For completists, your 2007 winner, for the moment: Alberto Contador of Spain.

But on these shores all of this pales in comparison with the NBA officiating scandal.

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Two years ago I wrote a column about the officiating scandal in German soccer and wondered why such a thing had never happened here. Various people connected to the officiating and wagering professions talked about vigilance, background and credit checks, the nature of the games popular in America and the nature of sports betting in this country.

I think I let myself be convinced that such a scandal was unlikely in U.S. sports, but the idea nagged at me. I did write: "American sports are a multibillion-dollar enterprise. The parade of CEOs and big-name accounting firms through American courtrooms over the last few years has shown us, if we didn't already know, that where vast sums of money congregate, the temptation to illegally grab some extra bills is too much for some people, even if they're otherwise solid citizens."

That shoe dropped earlier this month.

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Tim Donaghy resigned as an NBA referee July 9, a few days before the story broke that the FBI was investigating him for allegedly betting on games he'd officiated. A visibly shaken commissioner David Stern addressed the scandal in a remarkable news conference Tuesday, calling Donaghy a "rogue, isolated criminal" but vowing transparency and pledging that the league will work to regain fans' trust.

That's going to be a tough assignment. Even before this heretofore little-known ref became a household name, the NBA had a serious credibility problem with its officiating.

Despite Stern's claims that the NBA's refs are the best, most scrutinized arbiters in the world, fans have for years taken it as a given that NBA officials are capricious or incompetent at best, crooked at worst, that there are different rules for superstars and rookies, for glamour and nonglam teams and so on.

That's what the fans have been thinking, not just the former fans, the ones who walked away muttering after watching Michael Jordan take five steps one too many times.

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Now, in the wake of the accusations leveled at Donaghy, that he may have made calls to benefit his own wagers or those of his associates, it's hard to imagine anything the NBA will be able to do to convince a certain segment of fans -- a segment that has gotten a whole lot bigger in the past few weeks -- that the game's on the level.

That's because even if every ref in the league is as clean as a whistle, there are going to be close calls that go against your favorite team, and some of those are going to be flat-out blown calls. The game and the players are just too fast for that not to happen.

The first prediction of my second San Francisco period is that in the very near future fans will routinely protest a close call going against the home team by chanting "Don-a-ghy! Don-a-ghy!"

The good news for the NBA, and this is going to sound like a joke but it's not, may be that it already had that credibility problem. If fans have already made peace with the idea that the referees aren't playing it straight, proof of their crookedness shouldn't be such a big deal.

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For all his talk about how he aims to "assure our fans that our games are being decided on their merits," Stern's best hope may be that fans are beyond being scandalized by NBA officiating.

My best hope, other than finding the box with my underwear in it, is that now that I'm back in harness, August will be half as interesting as July was. Otherwise, you and I are going to get awfully sick of exhibition football together.

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