Is the League in Jeopardy?

July, 25, 2007
7/25/07
3:58
PM ET

I have heard worries that the Tim Donaghy scandal could actually put the existence of the NBA in a certain jeopardy.

Really?

This morning I emailed a ton of people who think a lot about the NBA, to see if they were worried about that. This was my question:

There has been a lot of talk about the Tim Donaghy scandal as one of the most serious black eyes any professional sports league has had in recent years. At any point in this process, have you felt at all concerned for the future of the league? Why or why not?

Here are some of the responses that struck me as most interesting (and yes, I realize that this is longer than any normal fan would read. But you are not a normal fan):

  • Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks Owner: "Not even a little bit. NBA fans come to and watch games because it's fun and exciting. End of story."
  • Brian Windhorst, Akron Beacon-Journal: "It is the most serious scandal in the modern NBA because it challenges the fan base's trust in the integrity of the game. However, despite what you hear from understandably biased fans and franchises, about 90-95 percent of the time I believe the officials do a balanced and fair job. Therefore, I believe the league will continue to thrive regardless of the Donaghy outcome."
  • Anonymous shoe company representative: "Since this has gone down I've definitely felt concerned for not only the league but the game as well, because a situation like this could potentially ruin the integrity of the league. And not only the league but the integrity of the referees and how we trust them on every level. Although this wasn't a major surprise to some people, it was a shock to me. Everyone loves to get on refs, but this will make it even harder on them. They will have minimal margin of error, and will all be closely scrutinized for a while. Hopefully this passes and is over with quickly, so the game and The League can get back to a level of normalcy."
  • Longtime NBA media professional who wishes to remain anonymous: "Concerned? No more than usual. Among its fans, the perception of an NBA fix has always existed, in one way or another-from the frozen "Ewing" envelope to the alleged marketing push given to lighter skinned players to the awful calls that always seem to benefit the league's "chosen ones". However unfairly, the specter of dishonesty has always encircled the league. This time, however, there is a smoking gun. Ironically enough, what may save the NBA with many of its actual fans -- and by that I don't mean those middle-aged white sponsors from Sprite that the league panders to, but the younger hip-hop generation ones-is that point shaving doesn't affect them. They, after all, aren't the ones spending thousands on betting. They're more upset about the dress code, you know?"
  • Anonymous team insider: "I have never been concerned for the future of the league. Integrity of the league has not been at question, solely the integrity of an official or perhaps the officials as a class. But no one at the player level, team level, or league level would want the games compromised and I think that these people would do what they have to in order to maintain the integrity of the highest quality basketball around. Does anyone really think that Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and the other spokesplayers of the league want to be reduced to the level of professional wrestlers?"
  • Dave D'Alessandro, Newark Star-Ledger: "Much of this has to do with how the media feels about it. Not surprisingly, the tabloid hysteria is a little over-the-top (They knew this back in January! Donaghy's gonna name names!), which is what they do to pass the time between birth and eternity, but I say let it play out. Find out if it's isolated, or whether there are additional circumstances. Sure, it's a black eye. But black eyes heal. I know this much: The league will make a concession to a greater transparency on a day-to-day basis -- access, etc. -- because that's one way to restore some semblance of confidence. I just wonder whether sports editors will care anymore, after the shabby treatment the print media has received from the league over the last 5-10 years."
  • Chris Vernon 730 AM ESPN Memphis: "I have a level of serious concern about the ref scandal and how this will affect the NBA. The serious NBA fan will get through this, forgive it, and will still love the NBA. All sports depend on the 'fringe fan.' The 'fringe fan' is what gets you big television ratings, sells out your arena, and ultimately decides the success of your product. The problem becomes that the 'fringe fan' has already become cynical and disinterested in the NBA as a product, and this scandal makes that incredibly important group of fans more cynical and disinterested than ever. They may just watch Magic and Bird on ESPN Classic."
  • Brian Berger of Sports Business Radio: "I am concerned about the future of the league, but have faith in David Stern that he will eventually right the ship. Stern and his league will obviously need to re-think the way they do security ... with their officials, employees, coaches and players. There has been a serious breach of trust and obviously the current system failed. The current NBA scandal is a black eye on the sport, but I truly believe that fans are becoming numb to sports scandals. From performance-enhancing drugs in MLB and cycling (Tour de France), to the off-the-field player conduct issues in the NFL (Pacman Jones, Chris Henry, Tank Johnson, Mike Vick) to the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA -- scandals are everywhere. Yet fans continue to buy tickets to sporting events in the U.S. in record numbers. I just don't think most fans really care as much as the media thinks they do about the authenticity or the morality of what they are watching any more. At the end of the day, most fans just want to be entertained and they want their team to play hard and they'd like to see their team win. Do they expect the people they are watching to be saints? Not any more. They'll root for a guy who just beat his wife if it means he hit a game-winning 3-pointer and they'll cheer a player who was able to escape attempted murder charges if he can sack the quarterback. Because today's athlete makes so much money, the common fan can't relate to the people they're watching now anyways. As a matter of fact most tickets are now purchased by sponsors and big corporations. Those people just want to be entertained. They come to a sporting event for social reasons, not because they are diehard sports fans. The real diehard sports fans come to a few games a year and they know better than to let their kids look up to today's athlete as a role model. The media in the United States needs to come to the realization that the sports world is tainted and that as much as some reporters want to act as the moral compass for our society, the scandals and the cheating will continue. And people will still buy tickets to sporting events. Because sports has become whatever we want it to be. If we want to sit in a suite and have a few beers and socialize during a game, great. If we want to put on the jersey of our favorite player and paint our face and root like a diehard fan, fine. If we just want to watch the "big game" on TV and never attend a game in person, that's fine too. The Tim Donaghy story will come and go. The media will drag it out for as long as possible to sell newspapers and increase ratings (I won't drag this story out, I can promise you that!). At the end of the day though, a very small percentage of fans or businesses will decide to boycott the NBA because the "purity" of their favorite sport has been tainted. But let's stop pretending that the public hasn't caught on to the charade that sports have become. We're smarter than that and deserve more credit."
  • Jeffrey Ma, Vice President of PROTRADE: "I have worried about the future of the NBA for quite some time and it is disturbing that that is the case. I love basketball and follow college hoops like it's my job (wait, in some respect it is) yet wh
    en it comes to pro hoops, my enjoyment has slowly dissipated. Don't get me wrong, I think it has the best athletes in the world and there's nothing quite like a good NBA game when the teams are really getting after it and there is something at stake but unfortunately those moments are few and far between. The Donaghy scandal is really, as Bill Simmons has already called it, the tipping point in what is a league in trouble. I think if this incident is indeed an isolated event than the league will bounce back but if this is just the tip of the iceberg than I am very worried for this league. In some respects I hope that this abhorrent event has a positive consequence as it gives the people who run the NBA some humility and forces them to make some changes in not only their product but also in how they run their business. This is something that has needed to happen for quite some time."
  • J.E. Skeets of The Basketball Jones: "'One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl. Oh, I don't care what they say, I don't care what you've heard.' Amen, Donny Osmond. Ah. Men."
  • Blogger "Unsilent Majority": "I don't see any reason to worry about the future of the league unless the scandal leads to the commissioner's resignation/firing. A lot of fans and talking heads want to usher Stern out of power thinking that this will somehow lead to an improved NBA product. I still feel that Stern is the best commissioner in sports and as long as he remains in the seat of power. If the public is so anxious to see somebody fall on the proverbial sword they should probably be going after Stu Jackson. Eventually the league will grow from the experience. We now know exactly what's possible and the league's scrutiny of the referees will undoubtedly increase. Plus I'll never have to spend an entire game yelling at Tim Donaghy. Not only was he cheating the game, he was also the worst referee I saw last year."
  • Matt of the blog Basketbawful: "I have to admit, the Donaghy scandal has left me thoroughly depressed. The 2006-07 season was dismal, and then bogus officiating cast a shadow of doubt over the playoffs. Now bad referee theory has become bad referee reality. I feel like a kid who, after a particularly bad Christmas, just found out Santa Claus doesn't really exist: It hurts even though I suspected it all along. What makes it even worse is that the performance of a referee on the take was, for years, barely distinguishable from refs who aren't on the take (as far as we know). That said, I believe the NBA will survive this scandal. The hard core fans won't leave (although some will threaten to); however, expect the general cynicism (which is a very real problem) to increase. Many casual fans will probably turn away until things improve and public perception becomes more positive, which will hurt revenues in the short run. As far as the long-run, well, it really depends on what kind of measures David Stern takes. The state of officiating in the NBA has been a mess for a long time, and it makes me angry that it took a scandal of this magnitude to force a wide-scale review."
  • Writer Donnell Alexander: "The only really scary portion of the NBA scandal so far was Stern's demeanor at Tuesday's press conference. It's like The Clash said, the future is unwritten. But to witness so confident a man come as so viscerally beaten, I couldn't help but think of death. The commissioner went looking for gangsters in wrong places, and that had me angry with him. On Tuesday, I stopped being cross and turned sad. Maybe it is over."
  • Blogger Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty: "While this certainly is a monstrous blow to the league, I have not felt it would destroy the NBA, or push the league down to NHL's depths in terms of mainstream irrelevance. The NBA has survived a lot, and (despite his flaws) David Stern is the absolute best man in the sporting world to come back from this. If anything, I think a serious effort to fix the 'officiating crisis' (as Bill Simmons has called it) will strengthen the league in the long run. People will always complain about the refs in basketball... but I think the league can at least push the (now vindicated) accusers of malfeasance back to the sidelines. It will take years, but I believe. Call me Pollyanna."
  • Steve Finamore, head basketball coach, Jackson Community College: "It just goes to show that not only do athletes engage in deviant behavior, but officials do too. We live in such a negative society. The media thrives on negative stories. Everywhere you turn, there is someone who betrays the law or the trust of their profession. Gambling is an addiction just like alcohol, drugs and pornography. There are thousands of people who have ruined their lives due to gambling. A huge problem with gambling is that it is getting out of control. There are too many opportunities for someone to place a bet. Someone should of reached out to Tim Donaghy and helped him. Not many people are willing to be bold, step up and help the person who is destroying their lives and the loved ones around him. I think the NBA will be fine after this is over. David Stern has done a great job over the years. With the Spurs holding down the fort and players like Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and Al Horford entering the league, the NBA will keep on moving forward."
  • Blogger Dan Shanoff: "The future of the league was already in doubt, at least in its relevancy as one of the 'Big' pro sports leagues. The Donaghy scandal simply (and instantly) became the most convenient excuse for that erosion to continue: For casual NBA fans to continue their trend to be less engaged. For the emasculated media to pounce on previously indomitable David Stern. And for the league itself to assign blame for its larger issues on this ugliest of fiascos. 'Donaghy' merely gives the NBA's long-term problems a short-hand label."
  • Anonymous former college basketball player and current sports-related professional: "I have a few friends who work at the League and have attended the officiating training camp. The dedication these officials show to their craft is not up for question, in fact 99% treat officiating as a religion. Now these same friends will be forced have to spend their foreseeable futures, locked away in some dark room, breaking down game footage and examining every move of every official from the last few seasons. I could not imagine a more dreadful task. NBA games are already boring enough. If I had the chance to serve as Commissioner, I would cut the number of games in half which would draw more viewers and bring some excitement back into the season. Playoffs also would be drastically reduced, first and second round best-of-three, semis best-of-five and championship best-of-seven. What they might lose in revenue from one game, will be regained with a buzz so prevalent in the NFL which has capitalized on with its short and exciting season. I do not think Donaghy's actions will cause the death of the League. I think it will be one of many factors that contribute to its continued demise."
  • Peter Adams of the streetball team Team Hollywood: "I have spoken with a few players past and present and I believe the players will still play hard, good teams will win, good referees will continue to ref, and the game will still be exciting. However, the business of the game will take a hit. Lost of sponsors and season-ticket holders will be turned off. High dollar seats will be tougher to sell, TV viewing will drop, and every questionable call will be looked at differently. The game will be harder on referees, owners, and ultimately players."
  • Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports Columnist: "I never worried. As long as the NBA was transparent in the follow up (and they appear to be) and this isn't widespread (and there is no indication it is) I don't think it will have long-term impact on the NBA other than refs getting heckled. It will be ammo for people who hate the NBA to continue to hate the NBA. However, I doubt many NBA fans will turn their back on the league -- cancel tickets, stop watching -- because one guy may have worked the over/under. This is
    n't to underplay the story. It's a big and ugly scandal. But I can't imagine it having a major impact on the league."
  • Elie Seckbach "The Embedded NBA Correspondent": "Such incidents have already happened in leading soccer leagues in recent years around the world, including in Italy and Israel. In those cases it did not change anything as far as love for the game, things quickly returned to the norm. In the Israeli case six refs were busted for fixing games, only one did time, the rest got probation."
  • Jason Gurney of BallHype: "I'm not concerned about the future of the league. The Donaghy scandal is damaging, but not nearly as bad as most of the crazy conspiracy rumors that have been floating around for decades. The 1985 lottery frozen envelope ... Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals ... Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals ... league tampering to boost big-market teams or TV revenue would be a much bigger problem than what appears to have happened in this case. It is a shame that the cloud is putting such a damper on NBA-related stories like Durant's performance in the Team USA scrimmage, charity work from an unexpected source, and "interesting" offseason trades."
  • Dwight Jaynes of the Portland Tribune: "I think the league is bigger than this. But I always see things differently than most. For example, I see a lot of people out there who want to blame David Stern or the league for not catching this guy. I mean, why -- because he was rude to his neighbors? Because there was one report he was spotted in a casino? Come on ... they have a lot of referees and these guys, by nature, are fairly confrontational... I can't imagine how much they deal with in regard to the referees. Perhaps I'm going too easy on them, but I believe what appears to be obvious -- that it was one guy, acting on his own and that makes him hard to catch. The more people involved, the easier it is to catch them. On the other hand, if they don't make fundamental changes to the way the games are called, they're going to continually face criticism. My mail is running heavily toward that typical fan diatribe of 'We always knew the games were fixed,' which is a shame. But if the league shows it's serious about acting to make things better, it won't kill the NBA. Ultimately, it will make it better. Besides, the populace has a very short memory."
  • ESPN.com's John Hollinger: "I thought the Artest melee was more damaging than this, to be honest. Only exception would be if multiple refs were found to be involved."
  • Michael McCann of the Sports Law Blog: I believe the NBA will recover from this scandal. The league has too many fans, in the U.S. and abroad, and there is too much money on the line in television and other entertainment contracts for this scandal to sink the ship. Also, while the NBA's product may not be as good as it was in the 80s, it's still undoubtedly the world's best basketball league, and that will help it absorb the scandal's fallout. In addition, I don't know of any individual scandals that ruined major American sports leagues or sports organizations. Major League Baseball overcame the Black Sox scandal, Pete Rose's betting-on-baseball scandal, and the steroids scandal; college football has overcome a wide array of corruption scandals; and even Little League baseball overcame Danny Almonte lying about his age. It doesn't seem that individual scandals have the staying power to destroy popular sports leagues and organizations, and I don't think this one will prove to be an exception. Having said that, I do wonder about the NBA's leadership going forward. ... I question the value of the NBA's internal investigation into Donaghy's activities. Stern's basic argument appears to be that Donaghy is the NBA's bad apple, and once the bad apple is removed, the barrel is saved. This is fairly standard corporate behavior when individuals engage in wrongdoing, such as sexual harassment in the workplace or hazing that occurs on college campuses: once it's clear to an organization that defending the individual is no longer worth it, the individual will be characterized as unusually malicious and a disgrace--in effect, the individual, who was previously 'one of the guys,' suddenly transforms into an evil person, a 'rogue, isolated criminal' as Stern put it yesterday (even though Donaghy hasn't even been charged with a crime yet). By focusing on the disposition and apparent choices of Donaghy, however, the NBA may miss to what extent its own policies and practices enabled a situation in which Donaghy could engage in wrongdoing -- just like companies and schools often miss how their own decisions enabled, or even promoted, certain apples to go bad (think about hazing and how it occurs year-after-year, with completely different students -- it's not about the students, it's about the situation that colleges allow to exist). Fault then, often needs to lie farther and wider than merely the individual wrongdoer, including all the way up to the top of the tree. But as Stern seems motivated to limit the controversy to Donaghy, I question whether the NBA's internal review can successfully identify how far fault should lie. Even though he pledged yesterday to 'do everything possible to analyze our processes,' he vehemently maintained that the problem was limited to Donaghy; how can the NBA now conduct a thorough review when the Commissioner has already established its conclusion? I believe the NBA would be better served by hiring an independent investigation agency or appointing an independent commission to look into Donaghy's actions and related NBA practices and procedures. An internal review may be in the best interests of top NBA officials, but I don't think it's in the best interests of the NBA."

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