One year after Donaghy scandal broke, transparency still lacking
Contrary to what NBA referee Scott Foster might feel right about now, there were several ways in which the news Monday about shamed ref Tim Donaghy's cell-phone records could have been worse for all involved.
Just imagine the kerfuffle had the documents compiled during the federal investigation into Donaghy's admitted involvement with professional gamblers and obtained first by Fox News revealed that Donaghy placed an inordinate number of calls -- 134 in all, many of them dubious in duration and suspicious in time and date through much of the 2006-07 season -- to:
As it was, the revelation that Donaghy had Foster in his Faves -- no, Charles and D-Wade need not worry about being replaced as T-Mobile pitchmen -- was troublesome enough for the league and, presumably, a huge headache for Foster. The NBA reacted to the Fox News report and subsequent inquiries with a statement: "The government had complete access to Tim Donaghy's phone records and thoroughly investigated this matter, including conducting an interview of referee Scott Foster. The government has said that they have found no evidence of criminal conduct aside from that of Mr. Donaghy. Once again, the only criminal conduct is that of Mr. Donaghy.''
As for Foster himself, he or his official mouthpiece might want to explain why the two refs played phone tag so steadily throughout the season in which Donaghy admits to feeding inside information to illegal bookmakers. The volume of calls, as well as the timing (before and after a number of NBA games they worked in separate crews) and the length (typically two minutes or less), suggests there was something going on other than restaurant or cocktail-lounge recommendations.
If, in fact, the two refs are friends -- both are 41, both are 14-year veterans who broke into the league together and worked in the CBA at the same time -- then Foster or someone with Foster's best interests at heart might want to demonstrate that their chit-chats predate Donaghy's tainted 2006-07 season. It would be nice to know how often the calls went from Foster to Donaghy over the years, too, rather than just vice versa. Foster, it must be noted, is considered one of the NBA's rock-solid young refs, able to navigate -- I've seen him, up close, work many games -- lathered players and fuming coaches with sound explanations and little emotion.
If, on the other hand, the only significant action resulting from this story is that a bunch of referees start trekking to Quickie Marts to buy disposable cell phones -- burners, the corner thugs called them in The Wire -- then the NBA's new era of officiating transparency and integrity will have failed again.
The presumption of innocence is a fragile and precious thing. The wheels of justice grind slowly. Once a liar, often a liar. We get all that. But perception frequently becomes reality, and the NBA has strained for years -- for most of Stern's 24-year tenure as commissioner, surely, and perhaps dating back further -- under the perception that referees are overmatched, swayed by personal agendas or both.
The credibility problem, pegged by some polls at 75 percent or higher as far as fan skepticism, seems to grow in direct proportion to the superstars involved in any given game, adjusted for the city in which each star's team plays. It swells during the playoffs each spring and, of course, ballooned last July with the news of Donaghy's criminal activity.
Now we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of Stern's stunning, anguished news conference about the whole mess, and with the league's vast and expensive machinery deployed for 12 months on behalf of its reputation, the situation has only gotten worse.
It was July 25, 2007 -- not to be confused with July 29, 2008, when Donaghy is scheduled to finally be sentenced -- during which Stern referred to the foul foul-caller as a "rogue, isolated criminal.'' We had no way of knowing the veracity of that claim, of course, because the NBA always had purported 100 percent purity until the feds exposed Donaghy's dealings.