PJ Media

A Sporting Chance: Will a Crooked Zebra Destroy the NBA?

There are many troubling aspects to the story of an NBA official who is under investigation by the FBI for allegedly betting on games in which he officiated and then made calls in order to fix the point spreads in those contests.

One of the major problems is, of course, that the actions of referee Tim Donaghy call into question the integrity of the game. Is he the only ref involved? Are there other crooked zebras who may have fallen in with gamblers and affected the outcome of games?

But even more troubling than this is the fact that hardly anyone was surprised. I know I wasn’t. To many sports fans, the question of whether NBA refs have been dirty in the past was never an issue. The question has always been how much of the horrid officiating in the NBA game was the result of incompetence and how much was due to the gamblers?

In defense of all officials in all sports – especially at the professional level – allow me to quote the great American League baseball umpire Nestor Chylack: “Umpires are expected to be perfect on opening day and improve as the season wears on.” It is well nigh an impossible job, I’ll admit. And at the professional level, the challenges (and the stakes) are enormous which puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the official to either make the correct call or swallow his whistle as the case may be.

Until a few years ago, I would have placed baseball umpires head and shoulders above all other professional sports officiating in terms of consistency and quality. Then, the umpires unionized and began to protect the incompetents in their midst and the quality of umpiring plummeted to where nowadays, the umps at home plate need a monitor in order to judge their accuracy in calling balls and strikes. (Poor Nester would be rolling in his grave if he or any of the old timers were challenged like that.)

Hockey refs are arguably as bad as NBA zebras but are hampered by the fact that much of the illegal action – hitting, grabbing, tripping – occurs behind them as they must follow the flow of play and the puck.

Even a game like the NFL with 7 officials on the field can’t get it right and oftentimes screws it up badly. The history of the league is replete with stories of officials who froze or missed the play badly. The “Immaculate Reception” by Franco Harris in the 1972 AFC title game is a good example. The referee, Fred Swearingen, actually called up to the booth and talked to Art McNally, NFL Supervisor of Officials before making his call that the catch was legal and the Steelers had won the game. McNally used a replay of the play to make his call – a highly unusual move given that instant replay did not come into the league until 1999. It was also said that Swearingen was terrified that if he ruled the pass incomplete that he would have been mobbed by the thousands of Steelers fans who had rushed the field following the touchdown believing the Steelers had won the game.

But what most of us fear about the Donaghy caper is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not just for the NBA but for all professional sports. And that fear is based on the startling fact that betting on sports is simply out of control.


  • 7 of 10 U.S. adults placed some sort of wager in the last year.
  • According to the NCAA, 35% of male college students bet on sports.
  • Online sports betting is estimated to be 5 times bigger than Las Vegas sports betting.
  • Illegal sports betting (barroom bookies) is estimated to be 35 times bigger than Nevada.
  • Over 20 gambling companies are listed on non-U.S. stock exchanges. The biggest sports betting company has a market value of almost $3 billion.
  • The biggest sports books employee over 2,000 people during football
  • The MGM-Mirage has publicly lobbied to allow U.S. companies to take part in online gambling.

(Figures from About.Com)

Even as the US Congress passed a law preventing banks and credit card companies from transferring money to and from customers who use internet gaming sites, the fact is it is impossible to enforce the law by arresting individual gamers. The feds have gone after a couple of high profile CEO’s of online gambling sites but have yet to make an effort to shut down the sites or arrest the players.

With billions of dollars up for grabs, it makes one seriously consider the possibility that there is a certain percentage of officials in all the games who are crooked. And that possibility chills the bones of many of us who love sports and know that revelations about dirty zebras would devastate the professional game.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons sums up the peril of the NBA:

“Guilty or innocent, we will never watch an NBA game the same way. He’s going to hang over everything-every referee, every shaky outcome, every bad call-in ways the average fan doesn’t fully realize yet. Maybe they’ll throw Donaghy in jail, maybe they won’t, but he’ll linger over every court like a black cloud. You’ll hear his name more than you think. You and your buddies will make “that guy looks like he’s pulling a Donaghy!” jokes every time a referee is making calls against your favorite team. Hecklers will gleefully play the Donaghy card after every bad call against the home team. For honest referees still working games, it doesn’t matter what happens from this point on-their collective integrity will always be questioned, their collective track record won’t matter, and that will be that.”

Now imagine this scenario being repeated over and over again as scandal rocks each professional sport. Pretty soon, the only people watching will be those who have money on the outcome.

When I was in Reno last year, Zsu Zsu and I were in the casino playing the quarter slots when we heard this huge roar go up from about 300 people who were watching a college basketball game on the big screen at the bar. I thought to myself “Must be a lot of St. John’s fans here for that kind of a reaction.” The fate of St. John’s basketball team was not the cause of the ruckus as I was to find out a little later. Whether they won or lost was immaterial to the gamblers. It was the point spread that mattered – the point differential between the winning and losing teams. And the roar was because an opposing player made two free throws with 4 seconds left that ended up beating the spread and winning money for a lot of people.

Tim Donaghy is alleged to have deliberately called bogus fouls and other imaginary violations in order to beat or stay within the spread. A weak argument can be made that his actions did not affect who won or lost the game but it hardly matters. The sin is in his having utter contempt for the integrity of the game. Besides, no one would believe he didn’t effect the actual outcome of the game for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that calling fouls on a team’s star player (or not calling fouls) affects the way that player will play the game. If a star player gets in foul trouble early, he is more apt to be less aggressive in his play thus negating much of what makes him a superior player in the first place. That argument may be made in court but it won’t wash with fans.

The NBA is in deep trouble. Donaghy, who will turn himself in this week, is said to have agreed to cooperate with the FBI in their investigation. If it is revealed that there are indeed other officials involved in this scandal, it could very well destroy the league. As it is now, fans will be watching NBA games with extra care next year and wondering.

Always wondering.

Rick Moran blogs at <a href=”http://www.rightwingnuthouse.com/”Right Wing Nut House