NEW YORK -- NBA commissioner David Stern answered questions about the FBI investigation of former referee Tim Donaghy for the first time yesterday, addressing the biggest crisis of his tenure. During the 70-minute news conference, Stern repeatedly asserted he believed Donaghy represented an isolated case, calling the referee a "rogue, isolated criminal" and his actions "an act of betrayal."
"I understand that this is an isolated case involving an NBA referee who engaged not only in a violation of our rules, but in criminal conduct," said Stern in his opening remarks. "But let me make it clear, that's my current understanding, and I await the outcome of the investigation by the FBI and the determination by the Justice Department and what they are going to do with it."
Stern said that to the best knowledge of league officials, the allegations leveled at Donaghy concern his betting on NBA games, including games he worked, and his providing inside information to others for the purpose of betting. If the investigation reveals the involvement of others in the league -- referees, players, or officials -- Stern said he would make that informa tion public.
The commissioner said the NBA learned of an investigation of Donaghy June 20, then met with FBI investigators the next day to offer its cooperation. Donaghy resigned by letter July 9.
Speaking before approximately 100 reporters and about a dozen top league officials and lawyers, Stern chose his words carefully and often took long pauses before answering questions. The wit and extreme confidence that usually surface during Stern news conferences rarely appeared. Instead, the commissioner looked and sounded humbled by the magnitude of the alleged scandal that could involve game-fixing and organized crime.
"I have been involved with refereeing and obviously been involved with the NBA for 40 years in some shape or form," said Stern. "I can tell you that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA, or a commissioner of the NBA. I feel betrayed by what happened on behalf of the sport regardless of how protective I've been [of referees]. This is not something that is anything other than an act of betrayal of what we know in sports as a sacred trust."
Stern said he does not know the number of games, or which games are in question. When asked what evidence he had of Donaghy betting on games, the commissioner said, "His lawyer informed us that he's contemplating a plea on that subject. Does that answer your question?" Stern added he had a "strong idea" how Donaghy avoided league security measures, and that the information will come out at some point and that it was his understanding "it wasn't through Las Vegas." It is legal to bet on sports in Las Vegas.
Stern denied the league knew Donaghy was betting on games and continued to let him work. Donaghy officiated Game 3 of the Suns-Spurs playoff series in the second round this season.
The NBA plans to review the 139 regular-season games, eight playoff games, and four preseason games officiated by Donaghy the past two seasons, but did not previously do so for fear of drawing premature attention to the FBI investigation. In addition, Stern said the league welcomes any in-depth vetting of its security measures.
When asked if he felt it was possible to determine if a referee was making calls to alter the outcome of a game, Stern said, "It would not surprise me if it proves to be difficult, but I just want to say one thing here: If you bet on a game, you lose the benefit of the doubt. So, I'm not going to stand here and say to you, it didn't happen, because that would impair the credibility that I think the NBA deserves for its efforts, and that's why we don't allow betting on games."
Stern noted the NBA has a vast security department filled out by former FBI, Secret Service, and CIA agents, as well as former US Army, New York Police Department, and New York State Police personnel. Stern said the league conducts extensive background checks on referees, involving credit card and bank accounts, and civil and criminal litigation. The NBA also has been implementing a system designed to record every call by an official and analyze it, and it employs observers who monitor the referees live.
With all of those safeguards, Stern said he was surprised to learn about the Donaghy investigation. Upon first hearing the news, he said his reaction was, "I can't believe it's happening to us."
"I'm surprised," added Stern. "But I think no more surprised than the head of the FBI, the head of the CIA, that rogue employees turn on their country in criminal activity despite the best investigative procedures you can possibly imagine, or when judges turn out to be corrupt despite their oath and the processes that are used to monitor them. But that's small consolation to us."
The news conference was one of the first steps the NBA has taken to try to reassure players, coaches, team officials, and fans that it will do all it can to protect the game. Stern said the league was "chomping at the bit" to offer comments about Donaghy and the investigation.
"This is something that is the worst that could happen to a professional sports league," said Stern. "And I want to say on the other hand that we are going to make good on the covenant that we believe we have with our fans, and I pledge that my involvement will be as intense and complete as it can possibly be, and what we do will be completely transparent."
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.