Devastating is too soft a word to describe the fallout from the news that first appeared in The New York Post today and has been confirmed by other organizations, including the Associated Press.
The ref’s identity so far has not leaked out of the same FBI officials who confirmed the story, but reports say that he is expected to surrender next week. The NBA is aware of the investigation and apparently know the identity of its target.
The NBA isn’t saying anything — at the request of the FBI, an NBA a spokesman says — which is probably a good thing because it’s going to be real hard to put any kind of positive spin on this one.
No one is in a better position to influence the outcome and score of a game than a ref. The reports say it’s not known whether the ref in question shaved points, but they do say that he’s a gambler who fell in arrears to some associates of the Gambino crime family and apparently paid his debt — and earned a tidy sum for himself — by betting on his own games.
That spells point-shaving, the same scandal that nearly brought down college basketball more than 50 years ago. It doesn’t matter that it’s apparently just one ref. One is more than enough.
What is especially hideous about the reports is that NBA refs are the most criticized officials in professional sports. They are regularly accused of favoring superstars and home teams, of making arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable calls, and sometimes of acting as if the game is about them, not the players.
Just this past season, ref Joey Crawford tossed Tim Duncan from a game, apparently for the crime of sitting on the bench and laughing. Commissioner David Stern suspended the veteran official for what Stern said was a failure "to meet the standards of professionalism and game management we expect of NBA referees."
What’s Stern going to say about this one when it all hits the fan?
He’ll probably say the league has been aware of the situation and has been working with the FBI. It will say it’s just one guy and there’s no reason to question the integrity of all the fine officials in the league. The league may even announce some kind of new get-tough review policy or its own investigation.
And it may well be that it’s just one man. But for two years he was working games and betting on them. Which games? Which teams? Did some make or miss the playoffs because of calls he did or didn’t make? How can we accept the integrity of two entire NBA seasons?
It’s doubly troubling because the league says it reviews every call in every game and talks to its officials about them. Yet, here’s a guy who’s on the make for two seasons and nobody noticed there might have been something fishy going on in his games?
What does that say about the quality of the oversight?
There’s a reason why gambling is the cardinal sin in every sport, why baseball bans for life anyone who is found to have gambled on games. In the early days of baseball, players gambled frequently; there have been persistent reports over the years that Ty Cobb himself was one of them. In 1919, baseball’s existence as a professional sport was threatened when it was revealed that nine members of the White Sox conspired to throw the World Series to Cincinnati. That was when the lifetime ban was put into effect.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Some people will simply give up on the game. That may not be a reasonable thing to do, but it’s a very human reaction to an outrage like this, especially one that allows the cynics to say, "See. I’ve been saying for years the games are fixed."
There’s no way to combat that, as the NBA is going to discover, no way to make people believe the game is now clean because one bad guy has been nailed. Some wounds even time can't heal. This could be one of them.
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PBT: Lance Stephenson led Indiana with 25 points in a win that eliminated his hometown team. Stephenson and the Pacers will face the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
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