All along, David Stern had hoped that Tim Donaghy would walk into the United States District Court in Brooklyn, N.Y., and offer up no one but his corrupted self. The commissioner had lorded over an NBA officiating culture about which the public wanted to believe the worst, and he needed everyone to see his rogue referee had no peers to rat out.
As it turned out, the words "game fixing" and "point shaving" never appeared in the government's charges. Prosecutors did charge Donaghy with betting on two December 2006 games that he officiated, and as Stern himself said, you lose the benefit of the doubt about calling an honest game once you've bet on its outcome. If Donaghy had money riding on his whistle, people must consider those games rigged.
Even if his guilty pleas Wednesday on two felony charges included no revelation of more dirty officials, they did little to ease the public's suspicion. Donaghy's plea suggested something league elders had been trying to dismiss forever: Different officials are predisposed to call games differently.
As much as anything, Donaghy will go to jail for exploiting that secret.
"To me," one NBA executive said Wednesday, "that was the most damning thing of all for our league. You've got to believe that's an issue we're facing somewhere in the league every night. That's the perception we've got to rid of – more than anything else that has to do with gambling."
Essentially, Donaghy used for gambling purposes his knowledge of who would be officiating which games. He knew which refs had issues with which coaches and players, and how that could influence the scoreboard. He also knew certain officials would dictate a certain style of play.
"By having this non-public information, I was in a unique position to predict the outcome of NBA games," Donaghy told the judge. At times, maybe he oversold the usefulness of his insider knowledge to gamblers. Maybe his mob connections won most of those bets, kicking him back $5,000 for each winner, on basketball acumen or dumb luck. Whatever the case, this confirms our fears of how agendas – some innocent, some not – play out in the sport. Perception becomes reality, and the reality is the NBA has lost the credibility, the moral authority, to defend itself.
In some ways, these are damning circumstances. Perhaps, though, they arise out of human nature and can never completely be expunged from the league. Robots don't call the games, nor do they coach or play them. There's a reason why coaches are anxious to learn who's officiating their game. Yes, there's a level of paranoia, but coaches believe they must alter their team's strategy based on who's blowing the whistle.
While the NBA can modify how it monitors its officials (despite warning signs, the league failed miserably with Donaghy), the tougher task comes in identifying their subtle agendas. Bad nights between ref and participant will have to be worked out and let go. There will be less tolerance for officials losing their temper and losing control. What's more, the league knows that the process will need to be more transparent, so referees will probably be made more accessible to answer questions about game-changing and controversial calls.
"We recognize that a cloud has descended upon all referees, but we are committed to showing the public that this was an isolated event and that NBA officiating is conducted at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and fairness," said Lamell McMorris, a spokesman for the National Basketball Referees Association.
Still, the NBA's officials aren't solely to blame. The league needs to listen to its referees' complaints about how headquarters deals with them. Refs don't like their evaluation process, and they largely doubt the competence of those grading them. And beyond the officials' claims, there are plenty around the league who privately wonder about the fitness of some of those serving under Stern. The NBA's investigations into Donaghy's spiraling life missed far too much, and the league promises to pay for those mistakes for years.
Stern insisted all along that this investigation centered on a "rogue, isolated criminal," so sure, Donaghy's guilty pleas were reason for a deep sigh out of Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue.
Donaghy goes down for selling the dirty little secrets of his sport, yet by pushing them out of the darkness, he has forced the NBA to take a long look at itself. Above everything, Tim Donaghy has made the NBA understand that a sport's ultimate salvation won't come simply by sending a boogeyman to jail.