Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Too Many Questions To Ignore...

At this point, my opinion of Bill Simmons is no big secret: he’s a talented writer who has taken the easy way out. He only writes about his favorite teams and has a dubious pro-Boston justification for everything. Despite all that, I don’t think there’s anyone out there that knows and understands the NBA like Bill Simmons. His columns may be subjective, opinionated and boring but his knowledge of the inner workings of the pro game cannot be questioned.

Why do I bring this up? Because I was thinking about something the other day: of the three major sports leagues – NFL, MLB, NBA – only one league has referees that could be considered “visible.” Sure NFL fans know who Ed Hochuli is and I’m sure baseball fans can name an umpire or two (or more) but it has never seemed to me that ref/umpire assignments mattered that much in those sports. And while I can’t claim to know more than one or two NBA refs by name, I do know that more than any other sport, NBA refs carry with them reputations and definite trends in how they call games.

Back to Simmons now. On Monday, the morning after the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, he wrote this piece. In this piece, the following excerpt stood out:

“For Game 2, they had a valid unspeakable 38-10 free-throw disparity that I won’t even attempt to defend. At one point, my dad pointed to referee Bob Delaney, who was practically wearing a Celtics jersey and joked, “I like that guy. I want him for every game!”

If you’re a Lakers fan, take solace in the fact you’ll get every call at the Staples Center if the crowd shows up; not only do these things have a way of coming around, but if Bennett Salvatore doesn’t officiate Game 3, it will be the biggest sports upset of this century.”

Unless Simmons has an “in” with the NBA that we don’t know about and he gets to find out the referee assignments beforehand, is it not interesting that he predicted that one of the refs would be Bennett Salvatore? 24 hours later, his prediction came true.

Why is this significant? I don’t know anything about Salvatore but I can infer from Simmons’s tone that Salvatore is a ref who has a reputation for calling games in favor of the home team and may be unduly influenced by a vocal home crowd. One quick Google search later and I found that Simmons has indeed criticized Salvatore for that exact thing just two years ago. And if an astute and well-informed follower of pro basketball knows enough about referee trends and tendencies as Simmons does, does it not stand to reason that the league would know these same things as well? Remember, we may know the names of officials in football and baseball, but do we know them well enough to know how they call games on a consistent basis? Do we know Bennett Salvatore because we’ve heard his name or do we know him because we know that when he calls a game, there’s a good chance the calls will be imbalanced in one way or another?

Which brings us to yesterday’s bombshell allegations from disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy that (1) he wasn’t the only ref fixing games and (2) certain teams were favored to win over others and that directives would be issued from the league in order to facilitate outcomes that were perceived as favorable or consistent with the league’s business and commercial interests.

If you read the Donaghy article, it specifically mentions that “top executives of the NBA sought to manipulate games using referees to boost ticket sales and television ratings” which falls in line with everything Bill Simmons has said on more than one occasion.

NBA Commissioner David Stern and others have predictably called Donaghy’s allegations baseless and have characterized his statements as the attempts of a man desperate for leniency from a judge who will hand down a prison sentence. I have to pause and ask why would Tim Donaghy lie? If his statements are exposed as lies, it stands to reason that he would not receive any leniency or favorable consideration. He pleaded guilty to the charges he was facing so this isn’t the case of a caught-and-trapped rat trying to bargain his way out of jail. I can’t see any reason why Donaghy would make this up.

When you take Donaghy’s statements and mix them in with what Simmons has been saying for years (and reiterated again on Monday morning), you really get the sense that there’s a lot the NBA has to answer for.

Conspiracy theories are typically a bunch of coincidences that add up to give the appearance of impropriety, even if improper actions may not have taken place. I admit that we don’t have much to go on here. But what does it say about league integrity when a big fan like Simmons – possibly the biggest fan – knows enough that he can correctly predict which ref will work what games? Doesn’t it raise any questions?

The upshot for the NBA is that they’re not the NFL or MLB: far from the heights they achieved in the 1980’s and 90’s, the sport no longer resonates with the masses the way it used to. And while that’s usually a bad sign, it’s always helpful in times of scandal. If you can’t get people interested in your product even when things are going right, there are fewer people you’ll lose to apathy or disgust when things take a turn for the worse.

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