Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Stern, NBA have big problem on their hands with Donaghy’s allegations

Posted on Tue, Jun. 10, 2008 10:15 PM

The Kansas City Star

The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was in full Kobe form on Tuesday night, putting up a shot over the Celtics’ Paul Pierce in the second half. Bryant finished with 36 points. The Celtics lead the series 2-1.

LOS ANGELES | The system is broken, and David Stern’s belittling of disgraced and criminal former NBA ref Tim Donaghy won’t fix the officiating crisis undermining the credibility of all big-time sports.

The system is broken, and the one “media” organization — ESPN — that could provide significant pressure to enact dramatic change from sports leagues is in partner$hip with the leagues in question.

Stern and the NBA soldiered on Tuesday night, conducting game three of the Celtics-Lakers finals series at Staples Center as though Donaghy’s most recent media maneuver didn’t question the legitimacy of the proceeding.

Donaghy, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to betting on and manipulating games he worked, alleged in court filings that two referees in a 2002 Lakers-Kings playoff series favored the Lakers in game six to ensure extending the best-of-seven series to seven games.

The game was one of the most controversial in recent NBA history. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Journalists covering the contest labeled it horribly one-sided officiating. Then-Kings coach Rick Adelman blasted the officiating.

Donaghy’s court document also alleged that top league officials instructed the refs to avoid calling technical fouls and fouling out big stars. Donaghy also claimed that the league manipulated games to increase ticket sales and ratings.

His charges couldn’t be more perfectly timed. Game two of the current series was marred by the huge free-throw disparity enjoyed by the Celtics. As predicted by longtime and casual NBA followers, the Lakers benefitted from favorable officiating Tuesday night in their 87-81 victory.

Kobe Bryant shot 18 free throws Tuesday, which is eight more than the entire Lakers team attempted in game two.

Game three was an awful mess. The Celtics shot 35 percent from the field. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett combined to shoot eight of 35 from the field. The Lakers connected on just 43 percent from the field. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol combined for 13 points on five-of-18 shooting. Both teams were terrible from the free-throw stripe. Four players broke double-figure scoring and only three players — Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen and Sasha Vujacic — played at a high level.

“It was not a beautiful ballgame,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson admitted. “Hopefully, both of us will play better basketball on Thursday night.”

Yeah, they need to, because Tuesday’s game is hardly worth discussing. Donaghy and his allegations were a much more relevant topic. They are not as easy to dismiss as Stern would lead you to believe.

“This is criminal activity that Tim Donaghy has admitted to, and this is sour grapes,” Stern said. “… Because a convicted felon said something about his colleagues in order to lower his time away, am I worried about that? I’m worried that someone is out there saying it, but you’re the one who will either deal with it or not as part of the media.”

Stern is worried about the media. Why?

ESPN, the worldwide leader, has no real interest in exhaustively examining Donaghy’s allegations. Not when there is a Barry Bonds or O.J. Mayo or Miguel Tejada to embarrass and expose.

Why hold a league’s billion-dollar feet to the fire and jeopardize a lucrative relationship when you can cherry-pick cheating and lying athletes to blame for sports’ ills?

As Stern said countless times, there was nothing really new about Donaghy’s allegations. His claim of unethical and manipulated officiating has been out there for some time. We in the media know that fans have a growing suspicion that games are consistently and intentionally being impacted by bad officiating.

At the very least, referees should be subject to questioning by the “free” press. The American system is predicated on checks and balances and watchdog organizations. Why are refs treated as a protected, fragile species?

A 25-year-old quarterback has to answer for his dumb decisions, but a 50-year-old ref gets escorted from the field and almost never has to answer for the mistakes he/she makes that dictate the outcome.

Sports have become too lucrative to operate under customs developed before there were billion-dollar TV contracts at stake. This problem isn’t limited to the NBA. I still remember Super Bowl XL and the one-sided officiating that sabotaged Seattle’s chances of beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Stern talked about “transparency” and how his league has nothing to hide. If that’s the case, then he should be the first commissioner to make his refs accessible to reporters after every game. I think we would be less likely to see another Tim Donaghy if refs knew they had to immediately answer for their suspicious actions.

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