- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

The NBA possibly has labored with a crooked referee in Tim Donaghy, which confirms nearly every conspiracy theory there is.

That includes the lottery that allowed Patrick Ewing to land in the waiting arms of Dave DeBusschere and the Knicks in 1985, although Donaghy would have been 18 years old at the time.

The federal investigation of Donaghy’s gambling problem encourages every nut job to say, “See, I told you so. I knew the NBA was only one step up from Vince McMahon’s performing artists.”

These are some of the same souls who wax eloquently about the charm and purity of college basketball, neatly forgetting the point-shaving scandal involving the City College of New York in the early ‘50s, Boston College in the late ‘70s, Tulane in 1985, Arizona State in 1994 and Northwestern in 1995, neatly overlooking the hypocrisy of the NCAA and all the charlatans who prowl the sidelines as if the fate of the world depends on the next possession.

College basketball routinely overcomes hits to its image, including the dead body in Waco, Texas.

And the NBA will overcome this business with Donaghy, no matter how many point spreads the feds show he has toyed with the last two seasons.

There has been something smelly about the NBA officiating for too long now.

Perhaps the Donaghy fallout will be the impetus that requires David Stern to take a harder look at the referees he usually defends with the ferocity of a Ron Mexico-inspired pit bull.

The Joey Crawford situation involving Tim Duncan was perhaps the first indication the referees had lost their way.

When a referee tosses a player from a game because he thinks the player is laughing at him, the referee has lost all sense of perspective as to what his role is.

That mind-set has been cultivated in part because of league policy that prohibits coaches and players alike from criticizing referees. Those who violate the policy are soon notified on the size of their fine.

This is especially baffling in a league whose coaches and players handle criticism better than those in any other sports establishment.

If Charles Barkley is not railing against a coach, player or team, you almost are obligated to wonder whether he is having a bad day.

British historian Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The three referees assigned to a given game are all-powerful, their authority strengthened even further going into last season, with the implementation of the zero-tolerance rule that granted referees greater latitude to assess technical fouls.

Donaghy was a product of an environment that could give a person a distorted sense of self.

It is the kind of environment that could lead a person to peddle his first-class air fare and fly coach instead, while pocketing the difference and not reporting the income to the IRS, a scandal involving several referees in the late ‘90s.

However much in-house scrutiny NBA referees receive — and it is said to be considerable — the system functions outside the public domain, as if it is a closed society cloaked in secrecy.

Yet referees routinely have a more significant impact on the game than the players. They can cite a team’s star player for two early fouls that send him to the bench. They can make calls that lead to a compelling free throw discrepancy. And they can be consistently inconsistent.

That is why Donaghy, if the reports are shown to be true, could go about his dealings with hardly a question.

He did not stick out from his brethren, because all too many of them embrace the incomprehensible.

The quality of NBA officiating is unexplainably mysterious too much of the time, and everyone loses because of it: the players, coaches, teams and fans.

That is the principal issue before Stern and the NBA.

The Donaghy mess will pass, just as the point-shaving scandals of yesteryear in college basketball have passed.

What Stern truly needs to address is the lackluster officiating that prompts the conspiracy theorists to see a Donaghy on the floor of every NBA game.