- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

The door Tim Donaghy opened is hard to close, no matter how forceful a commissioner David Stern might be. NBA games are full of borderline calls, any one of which could determine the outcome if the teams are evenly matched, as is often the case.

That’s the flip side of parity. Leagues institute all these measures to level the playing field, to enable small market clubs to compete against large market clubs - drafts, salary caps, luxury taxes, what have you - and the net result, along with more nail-biters, is that the focus is increasingly on the officiating, on whistles blown and not blown. It’s unavoidable. In a one-sided contest, the refs tend to disappear, but in close games they loom as large as Yao Ming.

Donaghy, the gamblin’ man, reared his troublesome head again Tuesday, and the timing couldn’t have been worse for the NBA. The Celtics and Lakers were preparing to tip off in Game 3 of the finals when word came of more accusations by the disgraced ex-official, who’s awaiting sentencing by a federal judge in Brooklyn.

According to charges by Donaghy in a court filing, two referees - at the behest of the league -helped the Lakers rally to beat the Kings in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, thereby assuring a much desired Game 7 (also won by Team Shaq). Stern’s immediate response, naturally, was to assassinate the messenger - which, given Donaghy’s sullied reputation, is about as easy as posting up Earl Boykins.

Indeed, as you read Donaghy’s thinly disguised claims about “Referees A and F,” it’s hard not to think of the Spygate scandal. Less than five months ago, during Super Bowl week, the Boston Herald published a story saying Matt Walsh, a former video man for the Patriots, had secretly taped the Rams’ final walkthrough practice before Super Bowl XXXVI. The “disclosure” caused a major pregame stir … and proved to be utterly groundless. The Herald, to its horror, recently printed a retraction.

So who’s to say Donaghy’s accusations have any truth them, aren’t just a parting shot by a desperate man? (Just as Walsh’s refusal to refute the Herald’s story- he wasn’t the source, as it turned out - was little more than payback for being fired by the Pats.)

But then you think about Jose Canseco. He was another dispenser of Inconvenient Information who was quickly shouted down by his commissioner and former colleagues. And Canseco, of course, wound up being right about a lot of things - no ands, ifs or, uh, butts about it. Had baseball addressed the steroid issue when he first raised it, instead of denying and dissembling and delaying, it might have gotten it under control sooner.

Sure, Donaghy’s credibility can be called into question, but whose can’t? When Bud Selig, the erstwhile car dealer, appears before Congress, his sole purpose seems to be to make sure our elected officials don’t look under MLB’s hood for too long. As for Roger Goodell, his destroying of the Patriots’ surveillance tapes summoned memories of “Tricky Dick” Nixon. Stern has hardly escaped controversy himself; just last year he tipped the balance of the Suns-Spurs series by handing out suspensions in a lamentably letter-of-the-law fashion.

Is it just me, or have sports commissioners begun to resemble those tobacco company heads way back when, the guys who raised their right hands and swore that smoking wasn’t hazardous to anyone’s health? On one level it’s understandable, though not necessarily excusable. More and more of their time, after all, appears to be taken up with damage control, with putting out random brush fires (off-field misbehavior, contractual disputes, misdemeanor rule-bending) and the occasional Runaway Blaze (performance-enhancing drugs, cheating, officiating malfeasance). It’s amazing, really, that candidates for these jobs don’t run screaming from the interview room.

Stern can denigrate Donaghy to his heart’s content, stomp on him with all the NBA’s multibillion-dollar might, but that still doesn’t mean the Rogue Ref, as the commissioner likes to call him, is blowing smoke. Let’s not forget, the IRS Fiasco, which revolved around exchanged airline tickets and unreported income, involved more than a single Rogue Ref. Besides, the whole idea of a Lone Official manipulating games runs counter to our conspiratorial natures.

At this point, Donaghy’s contentions don’t mean anything, good or bad. They’re merely words on a legal document. It’s just that once the door has been opened - the door every league secures a double lock, a chain, a safety bar and an alarm (backed by a pit bull) - well, you can see what happens.



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