So the Pedowitz report confirms what most observers of the NBA already knew to be true, which is the biases and temperaments of the referees can alter the outcome of a game.
We knew that from Joey Crawford’s embarrassing go-around with Tim Duncan near the end of the regular season in 2007. We knew that from the countless times coaches and players groan after learning a particular referee is assigned to their next game. We knew that from the way all too many referees grant immense latitude to the leading faces of the NBA and from all the times a bad call is followed by an equally bad call in an effort to “make up” for the original error.
David Stern and the NBA commissioned former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz to delve into the nether world of the referees following the Tim Donaghy betting scandal.
Pedowitz found that Donaghy acted alone and the NBA did not attempt to manipulate the outcome of playoff games. These conclusions are not apt to mollify the conspiracy theorists who haunt the NBA like no other sports entity.
The latter is the product of the large dose of subjectivity that afflicts the NBA.
That subjectivity comes from the three referees entrusted with making split-second decisions with a pair of eyes, no matter how well-trained, that never see as well as the video replay.
Referees are part of the game’s human dimension that is not afforded the same leniency as the players and coaches. A player who shoots 80 percent from the free throw line is applauded instead of being eviscerated for missing two out of every 10 free throw attempts.
Referees would receive no such pats on the back if their competency level was judged to be 80 percent.
As it is, Stern touted the 90 percent accuracy of the referees during the NBA Finals in June after Donaghy, desperate to receive a lighter sentence, suggested the league ordered two referees to manipulate a playoff game in 2002 in order to prompt a Game 7.
Stern and the NBA are up against human error and the capacity of humans to lack objectivity.
And no reform, no matter how thorough, is likely to rectify the human condition.
A report that finds referees are biased against certain coaches and players is about as surprising as finding the sun rises in the East.
Humans, however enlightened they aspire to be, are an extremely prejudicial animal. Those prejudices extend far beyond racism and religious bigotry, the twin obsessions of the intellectual elite in America. Those prejudices manifest themselves in how one group of Americans perceives another, the distinctions sometimes drawn between urban and rural, coastal and flyover and religious faith and secularism.
The NBA’s prejudices, not always apparent to casual fans, are nearly impervious to oversight.
The sight of LeBron James showing up a referee after a call that displeases him routinely goes unpunished because of his star power. The same antics would not receive a free pass from the referees if James was a complementary part.
The fault with the officiating can be something as small as the referee who tucks away his whistle in the final seconds of a game because of his belief in the wrongheaded principle that players should be allowed to decide the outcome of a game.
The principle fails the consistency test, as the NBA learned anew in Game 4 of the Lakers-Spurs series last May, when Derek Fisher’s foul on Brent Barry´s 3-point attempt with 2.1 seconds left went uncalled.
The no-call cost the Spurs the series and fed the conspiracy theory that Stern, Wizard of Oz-like, was doing his part to orchestrate a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals that would pump up television ratings.
What Stern and the NBA could do to ease suspicions is to invite members of the media to ask the hard questions of the referees, if not put a human face on them.
The ongoing shortcoming of the NBA is to allow its referees to hide in plain sight.