Sunday, July 22, 2007

Say it ain't so, Tim

Well, there goes the quiet summer...

In case you've been under a rock for the past few days, NBA official Tim Donaghy is reportedly under investigation for betting on games that he officiated over the last two seasons. He's a 13-year vet. Reports (like this one) indicate he's a guy with anger problems, gambling problems, and heavy debts.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I have a response to all this.

I have to preface this by stating that Donaghy is, as of yet, just under investigation. I confess that I bought the Duke lacrosse hype, and I want to learn from that. Although the early reports don't look good for Donaghy, I still don't want to jump to any conclusions. I certainly don't want to take the next step and assume that Donaghy is the tip of the iceberg, and that many officials will follow.

What troubles me is the reaction that many people are having that they "knew it all along." Bullshit.

A few years back, before he became a punchline, Mel Gibson was in a movie called Conspiracy Theory. I didn't see the movie, but I loved the premise. Gibson played a conspiracy theorist nut job--he believed that there was some bizarre sinister government plan behind just about anything. In the course of the movie, he coincidentally comes up with a theory that turns out to be true, and the government starts going after him, generating the action of the movie.

I think most NBA fans are like Gibson's character here.

There have been so many wild-ass conspiracy theories about the NBA that it's not even funny. The first time I heard the word "fix" tossed around in association with an NBA game was in Chicago. The Suns had dropped the first two games of the 1993 NBA Championship Series in Phoenix to the Bulls, and the breathtakingly-homer Chicago press was prepared for a quick coronation at home, ideally via a sweep. The Suns won game three in Chicago 129-121 in triple overtime. I can't remember what calls the Chicago press and fans didn't like, and I can't find a detailed description of the game anywhere, but I heard the word "fix" tossed around. It was ridiculous, of course, but quite a few bizarre conspiracy theorists "knew" it.

I've heard the word used quite often since--as you have, I'm sure. If I'm feeling charitable, when someone says the NBA fixes its games, I'll ask for evidence, and usually the person will say "Look at all the calls that went against my team!" This is not evidence, of course. As any official knows, just about any call that goes against a fan's team will be considered a bad call. Most vilified calls--I'd say a majority--are proven on replay to be either correct or too damn close to reasonably criticize.

In the minority cases where a call is verifiably missed, even that is not enough to prove malevolent intent on the part of the official, which we need to have to prove a fix. Since we cannot know the mental state of an official (although officials have a better idea than non-officials do), there is no way to prove anything took place beyond simple human error. Anyone who has, in the past, believed more is a conspiracy theorist on the level of those who believe Area 51 is real, O.J. is innocent, and the moon landing was staged.

Now, with the Donaghy story, the world is different.

The conspiracy theorists now believe they were officiating experts who were onto something all along when, in reality, they were a blind squirrel who found a nut. Idiot fans will dust off Donaghy's name every time they believe a call is bad (and many of them, by the way, are correct calls).

And they will win over some other ref-haters.

The default position will go from "That ref is blind" to "That ref is crooked."

It's already happening.

Check out any blog (besides this fine, reasoned one, of course) dealing with the issue. You'll find people in the comments saying they knew it all along, recalling a specific call they didn't like from their childhoods and saying "See? The fix was on! Now I have proof!" Check out the ESPN poll on the Donaghy story. Nearly half are "not surprised" about Donaghy, and over half are convinced that he is "just the tip of the iceberg."

If Donaghy is innocent, it won't matter. People don't let the truth get in the way of conclusions like this, which are based on emotion rather than on facts.

If Donaghy is guilty, and the NBA does a call-by-call analysis of all of Donaghy's games, people will still believe that the scandal reaches beyond those few games. They will insist that their least favorite call is now the result dishonesty rather than incompetence.

Because the public's default position is that officials are horrible, any stain on any official will harm us all. The assumption that officials are crooked surely will spread beyond the NBA. Check out this great article where some top-level college basketball officials express their worry about exactly that issue.

It's illegal to bet on high school games, and yet I believe the fallout from the Donaghy scandal will even make it all the way down to me. When you're dealing with a fan population who is overwhelmingly predisposed to abuse us, this just added to the ammo. The call of "How much did they pay you, Blue?" that I heard at a high school softball playoff game last year now won't be considered ridiculous hyperbole, but a remote but fathomable possibility.

The only analogy I can come up with is a conversation I had with a friend of mine who is a Catholic priest. As the intensity of the priest sex-abuse scandals became apparent a few years back, I was enjoying dinner with Father John and his fellow priests at their rectory. Needless to say, they were devastated by the actions of others, and were almost certainly were going to face stereotyping and repercussions down the line. "When a bunch of priests go out and feed the poor," said one, dejectedly, "it doesn't make the news." I don't want to compare Donaghy's sins to the unspeakable ones of a few horrible priests and their bishops, but the analogy fits at least this far: as a significant batch of Americans now assume the worst about a man wearing a backward collar, so will virtually all fans, and the majority of players and coaches, assume the worst about the guy in the striped shirt. And, thanks to the Donaghy story, the level of that "worst" has just dipped to a new low. That hurts me both emotionally and practically.

I'm looking over this post, and it doesn't sound like me. It sounds way darker than I normally do. I suspect by the time the hoop season rolls around this autumn, I'll be chipper again, and as the public's tiny attention span moves away from Donaghy, I'll feel better about putting on the stripes.

But not now. Not today.

It's no exaggeration to say this is the worst event in American officiating history. I can't smile and pretend it's not.


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