The Salvatore Side of the Story: Gambling Scandals and Referees

This is the fourth installment in a series based on a recent interview with NBA referee Bennett Salvatore a week ago today. Go back to the first, second, and third posts for more on Salvatore.

NBA referees have been in the news lately, particularly because of the Tim Donaghy betting scandal. But also because an ensuing investigation by the league revealed that, as told by Commissioner David Stern, every NBA referee had gambled in one small way or another. Neither of these revelations helps someone like Bennett Salvatore, who as a referee would rather not be in the position of having to defend his credibility in any way.

I had agreed to the NBA's request not to ask particular questions about Tim Donaghy, whose legal status is not fully resolved as he has yet to be sentenced. But I did asked him a series of questions about gambling and referee credibility in general.

Over the off-season, after the Donaghy scandal broke, I spoke to an officiating professional who does not work for the NBA, and he told me that they felt bad for you guys, because you were going to be dealing with more intense and angry catcalls from crowds than ever. Have you found that to be so?
I have not. I have found it to be almost non-existent. I have worked probably seven or eight games now. The crowd has been what I would deem a normal crowd. They take you to task on the call of the moment.

I think the crowds have been great. I think they themselves realize, perhaps, that this was one very very bad, unfortunate situation that was not the norm and will never be the norm.

What is the mood like among referees?
Right now, the mood is very good, very strong, very upbeat. We're professionals. We're intent on doing the best possible job we can do.

We went through emotional ups and downs with what happened, because it is our profession, and we're very proud of our profession, we take it very seriously. We were very hurt by what happened, and it's back to business now, and we're going to go forward, and we're going to do the best job that we possibly can.

I know you try to do the best job you can possibly do, but do you have to somehow be better now?
You try to be better every night. I don't want to sound silly here, but I'm in my twenty-sixth year, and I learn something new every year. When you say you try to do better, every night you try to do better than last night. The effort is always there, and now we have more tools to improve effort. That has nothing to do with this summer.

Would you say that the oversight referees get from the league is improving?
There are more tools at our disposal. Technology has allowed us to review games immediately after the game. We can see plays from all over the league that happened the night before. The league office does a very good job of sending us plays that are tough plays, and they will either ask our opinion or tell us how they would like to have that play called.

The whole idea is to get us all on the same page. We're spread apart. They want to close that gap. They want you to understand the block/charge as well as I do. The computer and technology has been a great gift in doing that.

You're pretty confident that refereeing today is better than it was in the past, and will continue to get better in the future?
You have to go back to when I first started -- there was no video tape. If you made a bad call on Friday night in Sacramento, the office didn't know about it until Monday morning. That's the old days. That's how it was. Today it's completely different. Technology allows an immediate sense of accountability. It goes both ways, too. After a game, I can email the office and say what do you think on this play? I'm not quite sure how you want me to call that. And it goes both ways. It's just not force fed from the office.

Who do you ask?
There's a whole breakdown, but we have supervisors, but if the supervisor can't provide us with the answer, we can ask either Ronnie Nunn or now Bernie Fryer, and if they don't have the answer, they would ask Stu [Jackson].

So, recently, there was this news that referees had gambled in small ways. On golf games, or whatever. Some reports had it at some percentage of the league, others said every referee. Yesterday, Commissioner Stern talked about it and said, essentially, that the rules had been unclear. Were the rules unclear?
We're going into an area that, honestly, I'm going to allow the commissioner to answer those things.

What about gambling in general. There's a lot more of it in the U.S. then there used to be. Is this something that referees should be doing, can be doing safely, or no?
I think the commissioner has done an excellent job answering those questions, and I want to talk to you about basketball.

If someone asked me about this two years ago, I would have said "I'm not going to ask Bennett Salvatore about game fixing, it's insulting." But we have had the scandal now, so I have got to ask you the question: Has anyone ever offered you money to fix a game? You ever been approached by anybody?
It's not even discussable. I know it is to you, Henry. But to me, it's not even a conversation worth having because it's the unthinkable. No. Our minds don't even go there.

Yours don't, but the world out there ... we know there are people who are looking to make extra money gambling on games by getting to people like you.
To answer your question: no.

No, never happened?