It's been an interesting week in the NBA, to say the least. And these are supposed to be the slow ones, where you wait patiently for any morsel of trade rumor or low-level free agent signing.
What happened with accused NBA referee Tim Donaghy has the whole sports world appropriately buzzing, and many already preparing the epitaph for a league that some think can never be trusted again.
And it is a big deal ... a big blow to the integrity of the sport that has already had it questioned by conspiracy theorists on issues ranging from weighted ping pong balls to questionable calls and suspensions in the playoffs. But many of those questions have never been addressed, or even acknowledged, by the league -- after all, if you respond to conspiracy theories, you validate them in some way.
But now that those conspiracy theories have been validated, the NBA is now forced to react.
And because of that, and the universal panning of the league's integrity that has ensued, David Stern and the other NBA decision makers have no other choice but to do whatever it takes to erase every single doubt about the honesty of the sport going forward.
Can you imagine, after all this, another official getting roped into fixing games? Or a player under the hand of a bookie? Do you think any of them now think they could get away with such a thing? If anything, this mess has become a huge deterrent to anybody within the sports world even thinking about tarnishing the integrity of competition in such a way. The public spectacle, the impending charges, the talk of the death of the league ... these are high stakes.
One thing everyone agrees on is that in the upcoming NBA season, the officials with be scrutinized like never before. Whether fair nor not, every dubious foul call, ejection, three-second whistle, and every other judgment call will be put under the microscope by the fans and media alike.
People will post YouTube compilations of an official's bad calls (check out Donaghy’s), hoping to find a pattern of bias. Referees' names will become almost as well known as those in the starting five, and undoubtedly be given mob-like nicknames by the fans, such as Joey "the Henchman" Crawford or Violet "Knuckles" Palmer. There will be nonstop jokes about how Tony Soprano didn't die, he's got three grand on the Nets. The Bucks will be involved in headline wordplay at least 50 times. Tommy Heinsohn, who has had his ref-bashing slowly reined in over the last couple of years, may not be able to contain himself any longer, and if he tries, there's a good chance his head will explode.
With all that attention, all the intense scrutiny of people looking for any little excuse to find that the league is fixed, neither a single referee nor league office honcho will be able to easily get away with anything dubious.
And although their jobs will undoubtedly be insanely difficult this upcoming season, all of this is a good thing.
Because now, the refs will be forced to be better. They have to be better.
The NBA will need to show the fans that their referees are not only unbiased, but also competent. Those deemed not to be should not have the free ride they once had. They will have more pressure than ever to make the correct call, every time.
Not that most of them haven't already been trying to do that (although some will disagree), but the stakes are higher now, and a ref has to be surer than ever when they blow the whistle. Not doing so will only exacerbate the negative perception of them in the eyes of many observers.
How will this realistically affect games? For one thing, hopefully the "star system" of calls will be reined in, and no longer do veterans get the benefit of the doubt simply because they've been in the league longer. And the wild fluctuations in what the refs deem either fouls or "play-ons" in the last five minutes a game can should become more universally consistent. I have a feeling the "no tolerance" rule on arguing that was in full force at the beginning of last year will be relaxed a little. Technicals won't be handed out like candy on Halloween like they were this past season.
And most of all, I suspect, the aura of undeterred authority that individual officials like Donaghy conduct themselves with will be reined in. They will have to work harder than ever at becoming a team on the court, with members that are willing to correct one another. Like in baseball over the past five or so years, I expect the officials to huddle together a lot more than they have been doing, in an effort to get every call right and erase any doubts in anyone's mind that a lone "rogue" ref isn't taking control of a game.
And hopefully, once the season starts and the catcalls from the rafters are in full force, they can let their actions on the court erase any doubts about the integrity of the league.
Because if they don't, they'll have bigger problems than FBI probes. They'll have fan and media apathy, and a one-way ticket to the Versus network.
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