Latest scandal leaves black spot on sports

Donaghy was rated in the middle of the pack by players and other officials.

Mark Remme

Nearly two decades ago, Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose crossed into a sports taboo when baseball officials declared he bet on games in his sport.

It wasn’t the first time. Eight Chicago White Sox players found themselves banned from baseball after the 1919 World Series (ironically against the Reds) in which they, too, bet on the outcome of games they played. The incident infamously became known as the “Black Sox Scandal.”

So, last week when NBA officials began throwing around allegations that former referee Tim Donaghy bet on basketball games over the past two years, red flags went up yet again.

Such allegations could prove to be catastrophic considering referees have the ability to change the outcome of games depending on the calls they make.

It’s perhaps a sports commissioner’s worst nightmare, right up there with an impending strike. According to University sports management professor Stephen Ross, the idea that sports games are unscripted is what makes them so alluring to fans at home.

“Most people enjoy sports because they don’t know what’s going to happen until the very end,” Ross said. “For people to think a buzzer beater doesn’t matter anymore because somewhere down the line the game is being fixed, it breaks the sanctity with the sports fan that the unexpected won’t happen.”

The loss of that bond could be a problem for NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern took over as commissioner in 1984 and has since become a model for other professional sports. He’s arguably made the NBA into a marketing giant compared to where he found it in the early 1980s. But despite a half-season lockout in 1998-99, he’s never been up against a scandal quite so severe.

And according to Ross, Stern’s biggest hindrance in this case is that he doesn’t have total control.

“I think (the NBA is) in trouble; there’s going to be a gray area for a long time,” he said. “They have to wait for the (FBI) investigation. It’s not something they have complete control over.”

If Donaghy did, in fact, bet on NBA games, the meticulous tactics of his procedure might be shocking, according to Ross’s description of how referees get to the professional level.

He said the NBA has a great tracking system of referees, meaning they trail calls made and rate their performance. Ross said Donaghy was rated in the middle of the pack by players and other officials, which means they viewed other referees as performing worse.

Ross said background checks, evaluation and training all go into hiring a referee. Once they’re hired, he said they often don’t know where they’ll be officiating until just days before game time.

Still, Donaghy’s alleged actions might’ve slipped through the elaborate system. If so, the NBA might have a significant job on its hands trying to restore credibility to the sport.

And perhaps nothing is more important than keeping children fans of the game.

But how the allegations toward Donaghy affect the allegiance of youths toward the NBA will likely depend on how parents and coaches address their children about it, according to the University’s Tucker Center associate director Nicole LaVoi.

LaVoi said kids interpret their own values, and that normally is highly influenced by their parents.

“When parents begin saying that refs are terrible and they’re doing all these unfair things, kids begin blaming losses on referees,” LaVoi said. “But they could turn it into a positive lesson that life’s not fair. We need to play the way we know how; we’re going to follow the rules.”

However the situation plays out, Donaghy will receive his fair share of face time throughout the investigation.

There’s no getting around it: A crisis in sports makes similar headlines as even politics. Ross said it’s because there’s an interweaving of fans throughout the country that make it such an enticing pastime to follow.

“A lot of people follow sports; politics, religion sports and music are the big four,” Ross said. “It’s something a lot of people have in common.”