Donaghy sentencing: The NBA still snoozes

The league should use the "rogue" ref as an opportunity to overhaul its officiating. But the commissioner says everything's fine.

Published July 29, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Update: Tim Donaghy was sentenced Tuesday to 15 months in prison for taking money from gamblers in exchange for inside information about games. U.S. District Court Judge Carol Amon could have sentenced him to a maximum of 33 months.

Some fans will probably be shocked at what they'll perceive to be such a short sentence. Coverage of the Donaghy scandal made it seem like the crime of the century, but in the scheme of things, Donaghy's little gambling ring was pretty small stuff.

This happens with sports scandals. People were shocked at the seemingly light sentence BALCO founder Victor Conte got because saturation coverage of the affair made it seem like Conte was Pablo Escobar and Al Capone rolled into one when he was really just a small-time hustler with a famous clientele.

There will no doubt be much talk of how Donaghy's sentencing -- which follows by a few days the shipping off of his codefendants, James Battista and Thomas Martino, for a little over a year -- closes a sad chapter for the NBA. The NBA will probably be doing most of that talking. Let's all hurry up and forget about Tim Donaghy, everybody.

Commissioner David Stern has insisted from the beginning that Donaghy was a rogue bad guy, that NBA officials are the most scrutinized employees on the planet and that there are no systemic problems with NBA officiating.

That's something NBA fans can believe if they choose, or they can believe their lying eyes.

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson made an excellent point in a Monday column, writing that "the NBA must be concerned about the incredible success" Donaghy had in predicting the outcome of NBA games -- he hit 37 out of 47 -- with the inside information he had as a referee.

That's because that inside information, according to prosecutors, was limited to the identities of the officiating crews, the relationships between those officials and players on the teams and some information about players' physical condition.

Maybe it's a small sample size and Donaghy got lucky. And maybe an expert can say, "Tell me who's officiating the game and I can tell you which team will win four times out of five," which is a pretty good prediction rate. Pick 47 games next year and try it yourself.

Stern and the NBA should treat Donaghy's sentencing as a beginning, not an ending. The league should use the end of the Donaghy affair as an opportunity to completely overhaul its officiating. Everything should be on the table. How officials are hired, trained, evaluated, assigned, rewarded and punished. How the rule book is written and interpreted. How the league deals with officiating controversies.

There should be more openness and more clarity. Officials should be made available to the press to answer for their calls after games. Coaches shouldn't be fined for daring to criticize the refs. The rules should be simplified or changed as necessary to remove the elements that create the perception that there are different standards for different players, or that enforcement of the rules is essentially random. That way it should be easier to see if a referee is slanting his calls toward one team or the other.

The NBA has been pretending for too long that it doesn't have a problem here, that its real problems have been so-called thuggish behavior or too much hip-hop style. Tim Donaghy should be a wake-up call. Any comments by Stern or his lieutenants that it's time to put this scandal behind us and move on are a sign that the NBA is still sleeping.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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