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There is a term in military intelligence known as “the ground truth.” It refers to conditions on site and how facts on the ground compare to the perception created by satellite imagery or other outside intelligence.
During the past year, three of the major sports leagues have found themselves facing big stories where outside observers continue to grasp for the ground truth. MLB has steroids. The NFL has Spygate. And, most recently, the NBA found itself in the middle of its Finals showcase forced to answer questions about disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy.
In court papers filed in response to the NBA’s defamation lawsuit against him, Donaghy alleged that certain NBA refs tilted their calls to give the league the marquee playoff matchups that would yield the highest ratings. (Perhaps David Stern should have consulted with Roger Clemens on the pros and cons of defamation suits.)
As with MLB and the NFL, the NBA is facing very direct and damaging questions that go right to the heart of whether their games are on the up and up. Commissioner Stern, who knows a thing or two about staying on message, never strayed from his original talking points about Donaghy: He acted alone, is a convicted felon and shouldn’t be trusted. The problem was that Stern’s message was being delivered into a pretty steady headwind of media cynicism. A June 12 New York Times headline said it all: “Claims May Be Bogus, But The Perception Is Real.”
So, what’s the ground truth about the NBA and the impeachability of its refereeing? More pointedly, who’s going to determine that truth? The league? Not according to the media. In many of their minds, trusting the NBA on this matter is akin to trusting the Bush administration’s assessments about the situation in Iraq. It hasn’t helped that Stern’s responses to Donaghy’s allegations were delivered with his typical peremptory manner. In short, David Stern can be the greatest commissioner in the history of sport, as some believe, but even he doesn’t get a pass.
How about some outside entity? There have been the predictable calls for outside monitoring of NBA refs, from a Mitchell-style independent review to congressional hearings to Phil Jackson’s musings that the league should outsource its own officiating. Calls for complete transparency make for a good sound bite, but Stern gave the only answer we should expect from any leader asked about the idea of ceding control over a critical element of his organization: “I think that would not be a wise management decision.” Maybe Stern was thinking of an old George Carlin joke about how, somewhere, there’s the worst doctor in the world — and even more terrifying is that someone has an appointment with that doctor tomorrow. Apply Carlin’s logic to the NBA with a system where fans could Google the latest referee ratings. Somewhere in the NBA would be the league’s absolute worst referee — and two teams could have an appointment with that ref on any given game night.
As for Congress, this might be a sports issue they finally resist. As we saw with steroids and Spygate, your average Washington politician would rather take up ethics reform than pass on a chance to stand firm on a no-lose, high-profile sports issue. Can’t you see it now? “Mr. Chairman, there is nothing more American than a sense of fair play.” Please spare us. But with summer recess approaching and their poll numbers in the basement (a May Gallup Poll found congressional approval ratings at 18 percent, tying an all-time low), members of Congress likely will look to avoid their constituents’ election-year wrath for spending even one minute on NBA refereeing with gas over $4 gallon, spiraling food prices, a continuing housing slump and an unpopular war. For his part, Sen. Arlen Specter said he has no interest in the Donaghy matter.
That leaves the media. I, for one, am still waiting for someone to do the definitive, in-depth piece on Spygate. (For instance, what did Robert Kraft know about his team’s videotaping practices, and when did he know it? Did the league actually silence the Patriots from speaking out earlier in their own defense? Was everyone else in the league really doing it?) Could some really good investigative journalism get us to the ground truth on the Donaghy affair? That depends on whether there really is that much that we don’t know. Right now, it’s hard to imagine someone breaking a lot of new ground without significant cooperation from inside the league.
A key assessment for the NBA is whether its fans care about this issue as much as the media and the late-night comedians. One poll suggests they do. According to a YouGovPolimetrix survey taken before Donaghy’s allegations, 41 percent of casual or avid fans responding believe it is either somewhat or very likely the NBA alters the outcome of its games. If I were David Stern, I would be much more concerned if those 41 percent were now former NBA fans. Still, there is a perception problem there.
As I was watching Game 4 of the NBA Finals with my 9-year-old daughter, she became very concerned with the Lakers’ hot start and said, “I don’t like these refs. It’s like they’re cheating for the other team.” The instinct to blame the officials and other sundry Curses and Conspiracies for our own teams’ misfortunes is genetically ingrained in all sports fans. No independent commission or enterprising journalist will change that. That’s one truth David Stern may hold onto as he moves forward to deal with his league’s perception problems, and as long as he is right about Donaghy’s allegations being baseless, that bedrock consumer cynicism may be a big reason why the NBA will stay the course and resist media pressure to drastically change their operations.
Sunday Will Never Be The Same: This political junkie was shaken and saddened by the sudden death of NBC’s Tim Russert at age 58. The conventional wisdom about Russert is exactly right: As a journalist, he was tough, but fair; as a person, he was — and this is the ultimate compliment from South Buffalo to South Boston — “a good guy.” Anyone who ever watched “Meet the Press” knows that Russert was also the ultimate sports fan, devoted to his Bills, his Sabres and the B.C. Eagles, an allegiance formed the second after his son, Luke, decided to spend his college days at The Heights. The fact that he lured Chuck Todd, the original managing editor of SportsBusiness Daily, to be NBC News’ political director also showed he had a great eye for talent. But what Russert’s life teaches us most of all is that you can be ambitious and successful without stepping on others on your way up, that anything is possible if you work hard and love what you do, and that, in the end, being a good son and a good father is what matters most of all. From now on, if it’s Sunday … it just won’t be the same.
Steve Bilafer is founding editor of SportsBusiness Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.