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Sports Media

An experienced whistle-blower

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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Meanwhile, in other news regarding blown calls . . .

Actually, such a segue isn’t fair to Jim Joyce, the respected umpire who whiffed on the call of his career Wednesday night, costing remarkably gracious Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga the 21st perfect game in baseball history. As Joyce’s devastated reaction indicated when he realized his call would live in baseball infamy, it was honest-to-goodness human error.

What Tim Donaghy did during his career as an NBA referee was something else entirely, something far more sinister, something that cost him his job and, for 15 months, his freedom. Donaghy provided inside information to gamblers and bet on NBA games he was working. Which leads to an obvious question if you’ve spent any time listening to sports radio lately.

If the disgraced whistle-blower’s decisions cost him so much, why didn’t they cost him every last shred of credibility?

Curiously, Donaghy has become a go-to source on local sports radio regarding controversial calls and the state of officiating during the postseason, particularly concerning Celtics games.

Pushing a book about his experiences, Donaghy has phoned in as a guest on WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan’’ morning show twice in recent weeks, with cohosts John Dennis and Gerry Callahan grilling him particularly hard during his initial appearance.

Jason Wolfe, the vice president of programming and operations for Entercom Boston, said via e-mail that Donaghy’s lack of credibility isn’t a concern for WEEI, because it doesn’t prevent him from being what the station desires: a guest that retains listeners’ interest.

“Donaghy isn’t credible, he’s available,’’ Wolfe said. “He doesn’t pull punches, which makes for compelling radio, and he has generated tremendous response from our audience.’’

Most recently, Donaghy spoke with 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Damon Amendolara at halftime of the Celtics’ series-clinching Game 6 victory over the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals.

While his expertise on lousy officiating — intentional or otherwise — is well-established, isn’t having him on to analyze referees essentially the equivalent of asking Bernie Madoff for financial advice?

“Well, I can see it that way,’’ said Amendolara with a laugh. “But I can explain easily why we had him on — there’s no one else willing to talk about the skepticism regarding the officials in the NBA. It’s that simple.

“The story after Game 5 was so about the officiating. We got so many calls with such an overwhelming sentiment that ‘the NBA is fixed, the NBA wants a longer series, the NBA [stuck it to] the Celtics,’ that you couldn’t ignore it.

“I don’t know if I buy into that, but it was this overwhelming sense. When people gripe about officiating, I’m usually like, ‘Come on, let’s talk about something we can really break down.’ Complaining about the officiating is sort of a loser’s mentality, for the whiners.’’

But it was such a hot-button topic — and because Donaghy, for better or worse, generated buzz as a guest — it was irresistible.

“It just struck me that if the majority of our callers feels like the NBA is controlled in some way — fixed is too strong a word, obviously — then it’s a story, it’s got to be a story,’’ said Amendolara. “And so we’re like, ‘Who can we get to talk about this?’

“And you’re right, his believability is strained because of his vendetta against the league, and he needs to sell books, so he probably sensationalizes a bunch of this. It just seemed like a good fit even though there’s a percentage of people who think anything he says is not credible.

“He’s the only guy who’s going to stir it up a little bit and question the motives of the NBA. So we know he’s a lightning rod, so why not?’’

While the notion of giving a voice to unseemly characters with an agenda is hardly new to the sports media — Jose Canseco comes to mind — the introduction of Donaghy as an expert is disconcerting, though probably not surprising.

As Amendolara put it, there is an established perception that NBA refereeing isn’t always “on the up-and-up.’’ While such a notion is terribly unfair to the many capable and conscientious officials, it has become so common that even usually clear-eyed analysts, such as Comcast SportsNet New England’s Donny Marshall, matter-of-factly refer to the subjectivity of NBA referees.

“It’s easy to get carried away critiquing them. You don’t want to go too far,’’ acknowledged Marshall, who played 119 games over five NBA seasons. “But I learned it as a young player, the veterans saying, ‘Watch this ref, watch this next call, here comes the makeup call.’ This stuff happens.

“And without disrespecting the game that has given me so much, I’d have to mark it up to human nature. That’s what I’d have to mark it up to, without calling it a conspiracy.’’

Marshall does say it bothers him that the image of NBA officials isn’t what it should be.

“I don’t want kids out there to say, ‘I’m not watching because this is fixed,’ ’’ Marshall said. “I don’t want kids watching to say, ‘I know LeBron is going to win because he’s LeBron.’ You hope that the officials will do the right thing.

“You like to think at night when they lay down, they have to sleep with themselves and think, ‘Did I give this game the integrity that it deserves and that everyone else expects me to give it?’ I hope the answer is yes.’’

Unfortunately, for a certain notorious former official, the answer will forever be no. And Tim Donaghy is more than glad to tell you all about it, just so long as you mention the book.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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