Partners in Crimefighting

August, 21, 2007
8/21/07
4:57
PM ET

It just struck me: Is there any chance Commissioner David Stern's mission to stamp out evil and gambling from the ranks of NBA referees will go the way of O.J. Simpson's hunt for the real killers, or the FBI's hunt for whoever was mailing anthrax a while back?

Could this fizzle away?

Remember how at David Stern's Tim Donaghy press conference he promised massive reviews of videotape, and virtually limitless expenditures on finding out what happened and preventing it?

The implication was that the full truth was around the corner. Soon we will know what really happened!

But I'm thinking that if it's up to Commissioner Stern, we the public will learn a lot about what really happened only if they find that the NBA is now certified 100% evil-free.

Today the NBA announced MORE INVESTIGATIONS! From NBA.com:

NBA Commissioner David Stern announced today that the NBA has named Lawrence B. Pedowitz, a former Chief of the Criminal Division in the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and current partner at law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, to lead a comprehensive review of the league's rules, policies, and procedures relating to gambling and its officiating program.

We're hearing anything and everything that's good news: We're right on it! A commission has been organized! We're very serious!

But what will the NBA do if they find evidence of bad stuff? All those people Commissioner Stern implied would be watching Tim Donaghy's games ... what if right now one of them is in a cubicle in Secaucus noticing that Donaghy is doing something really bizarre? Will we get to know that?

I'm trying to remember the last time the NBA broke bad news. Magic Johnson's retirement, perhaps?

I salute him for facing the music, and tackling bad news that has already broken elsewhere. He stood up there and faced the music in the heat of the Donaghy scandal.

But are we really hand in hand with him in our search for justice? Will Lawrence B. Pedowitz be sharing the nitty gritty of his findings with the fans who pay the bills -- or just the commissioner's office?

For instance, surely the NBA has looked into the question of whether or not other referees, besides Tim Donaghy, gamble. What have they found? Might there be others? This has to be one of the biggest, most pressing questions NBA security has ever faced. Yet that doesn't mean you and I have any real answers. Here's how Ken Berger tells it on his Newsday blog:

When ESPN Radio reported last Friday that Donaghy was set to name about 20 additional referees with gambling habits, the league said it had "no additional information" and declined to comment. It offered the same response to me when I pressed for a better answer on Saturday.

Then on Monday night, after other reporters around the country followed up again, NBA spokesman Tim Frank gave the following statement:

"There have been allegations that other referees violated NBA rules prohibiting casino gaming and the like, but it remains our understanding that Tim Donaghy is the only referee who bet on NBA games."

Here's what I'm thinking: people in the NBA, at this point, are either not competent investigators, have not really been assigned to what's important, or -- most likely -- they have pretty sophisticated answers to the question of whether or not gambling is a common problem among NBA referees. Yet all we get is, essentially, a reminder that Tim Donaghy is a rogue criminal (an assessment Commissioner Stern made long before there was even a plea in the case -- any chance that was a rush to judgment?).

My question is one of PR. I'm no PR expert. Maybe playing your cards close to your vest is the smart way to play it, for all I know. But I know that it feels funny to me.

After you have been busted cheating, if you want to save the relationship, you come clean. Fully clean.

We're in crisis mode, right? And the crisis is that fans might stop trusting the NBA? To me, when you're trying to build credibility, being obsessed with looking good while hoarding your dirty little secrets is not a good long-term plan. If you want to convince the world you're a straight shooter, sound like a straight shooter, you know? Admit some flaws. Acknowledge some criticism.

And, if this event proves real changes are needed, make those changes while we can still remember why we needed those changes in the first place.

UPDATE: Another way of saying what I'm trying to get at in this post. Here's how David Stern ended his last press conference:

Before I leave with a thank you, I just want to sum up to say to you that this is something that is the worst that could happen to a professional sports league. And I want to say on the other hand that we are going to make good on the covenant that we believe we have with our fans, and I pledge that my involvement will be as intense and complete as it can possibly be and what we do will be completely transparent. 

That sounded to me like a promise to keep us in the loop along the way. That's a good idea, and I hope the NBA is still serious about doing just that. 

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