The National Basketball Association is again in the midst of trying times. Since February, the NBA has faced widespread fan and media criticism on numerous fronts, ranging from its draft system and player suspension policies to owner lawsuits and allegations that festivities surrounding its All Star Game may have spurred illegal activity--in Las Vegas of all places.
But by far the most most damaging incident hit the league this summer when an FBI investigation revealed that veteran NBA referee Tim Donaghy had been gambling on basketball games since at least 2005, including some that he had officiated. The impact Donaghy had on actual game outcomes remains unclear (some believe that he likely only "shaved points" by influencing point-spreads with his calls rather than causing one team to win or lose), but as an official who has officiated over 150 games--including 20 in the playoffs--in the past two years alone, many fans are left to wonder if it was their team's poor play that lost a critical playoff game, or if a shady referee with ulterior motives decided the results.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the league and its fan-base. Donaghy's wrongdoings (he has pied guilty to wire fraud and "transmitting betting information through interstate commerce") the incident ranks among the worst gambling scandals in sports history. The NBA's response was to publicly vilify the referee as a "rogue isolated criminal," whose illicit behavior should not undermine the credibility of the the league's upstanding officials.
Many fans remained unconvinced by these sentiments, which were delivered by the increasingly polarizing NBA commissioner, David Stern. And for other critics, the reaction was closer to "I told you so."
For years now, a number of fans and media pundits have been questioning the general competence--and even the objectivity--of the league's referees, arguing that fair competition has been suffering because officials favor superstars. Never was this outcry louder than during the 2006 NBA Finals, as the Miami Heat, led by a record-setting number of foul-shot attempts by star guard Dwyane Wade, came back from a two-games-to-zero deficit to win the championship over the Dallas Mavericks.
Even the financially struggling NHL has been getting in on the act of mocking NBA refs lately, as the Dallas Stars took out a billboard referencing the point-shaving scandal, which states, "The only thing our refs shave is the ice." Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Mavericks (and the man who was famously fined $250,000 as his team was losing the 2006 Finals for yelling at Stern, "Your league is rigged") predictably took the ribbing in stride. "I think it's hysterical," he told the Dallas Morning News.
Chances are, Stern was not amused.
On the bright side, however, the NBA's image was likely spared some negative press when two other sordid sports scandals (Michael Vick's dog-fighting ring fiasco and Barry Bond's steroid-aided ascension to the homerun title) absorbed much of the sports media's ire throughout August. But the criticism will likely resurface as the NBA season begins anew, and to makes matters worse, this is not the only black mark the league is working to overcome.
Three years ago, the NBA witnessed one of its most frightening and embarrassing nights in history when a seemingly innocuous early-season game in Detroit between the hometown Pistons and the Indiana Pacers turned into an all-out brawl of players versus fans. The ordeal began after an on-court player confrontation involving Pacer Ron Attest spilled into the crowd. Long-story short, a fan hit Arrest with a cup of beer as he sat on the scorer's table, and Artest flew into the stands to find the man. Punches flew, other Pacer players followed Artest into the stands and over the next five minutes, one of the ugliest scenes in American sports history unfolded. …