The gambling investigation surrounding former NBA referee Tim Donaghy has everyone in the sport walking around in a daze. But at least one constituency might have mixed feelings about the mess—the players themselves. Even casual NBA fans know that the relationship between the league's players and its referees has been testy for many seasons now. But too often, the athletes feel, this tension has played out in public as just another example of whiny, thuggish millionaires who think the rules don't apply to them. So as nightmarish as the Donaghy matter is for the NBA, it has also provided players with something they've been seeking for a while: a measure of vindication.
"All I can say is, it's good to see the shoe on the other foot," Denver Nuggets superstar guard Allen Iverson tells NEWSWEEK. "To see someone other than players getting talked about and criticized is something I didn't ever see coming. I'm not happy about it because it makes the entire game look bad, but hopefully those people who think it's just the players that cause problems will think twice. It's more complicated than that."
For years, players (and coaches, and sports journalists and NBA fans) have complained about shoddy officiating in the pro game. But NBA Commissioner David Stern has always taken a hard line on such critiques, issuing stiff fines and threatening suspension for anyone who shoots off at the mouth. At the same time, several players feel the league has done far less to protect them from wayward refs—and even less to contradict the public perception of some athletes as troublemakers. In light of that environment, some players tell NEWSWEEK that the Donaghy case feels like a reckoning long overdue. "You know with Stern, it's all about we, the players, being wrong and having issues," says one New York Knicks veteran player, who requested anonymity because he feared reprisal from the league. "We're typically the bad guys, while others around us do what the hell [they want] with no punishment." (Stern had no comment, other than to refer a reporter to his comments at Tuesday’s press conference.)
Donaghy, says this player, was a glaring example. The 13-year veteran referee is under investigation by the FBI for conspiring with bookies and low-level mobsters to profit on games that he officiated. Stern insisted during a Tuesday press conference that the NBA knew nothing about illegal activities allegedly involving Donaghy. But there were red flags in his past, including a January 2005 run-in with his next-door neighbors in suburban Philadelphia, who accused him in court of setting fire to their lawnmower and crashing their golf cart into a ravine. (The lawsuit was dropped when Donaghy moved with his family to Florida; Donaghy's lawyer, John Lauro, did not respond to NEWSWEEK's request for comment on this story.) Donaghy was also investigated by the NBA in late 2004 for visiting an Atlantic City casino—a violation of league rules that could have resulted in his dismissal—but the probe turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. (According to NBA guidelines, league referees are not even permitted to set foot in a casino.) On the hardwood, Donaghy had a reputation among players as one of the league's most combative officials, and indeed, he issued more technical fouls than any other referee during the past season. And yet he never received more than a slap on the wrist from the league. "You'd have to be blind not to have seen that this guy had issues," says the Knicks player. "We'd all heard about the run-ins he had with the people in his neighborhood."
Regardless of how the Donaghy case plays out in court, the NBA is facing a public crisis of confidence about the integrity of its officiating. During his press conference, Stern labeled Donaghy "a rogue criminal," but the commissioner is all too aware that it only takes one shamed referee to cast doubt on them all. "I can only imagine what the die-hard fan is thinking after hearing about this. It's what I'm thinking as a player—'How can I know this is for real?'," says one Eastern Conference All-Star. "These guys are no different than us players in some regards. They travel all the time, they're away from their families, and that gives anyone a lot of time to get into something bad."
The biggest unanswered question surrounding the Donaghy case is whether he's the only referee involved. Two sources who have been briefed on the Donaghy investigation tell NEWSWEEK that he is currently the only referee investigators are focusing on at the moment. But that could change. And at least one player believes that there are more dirty refs out there who haven't been caught yet. "The league is big, but word gets around about who may be on the level and who isn't," says the Knicks player. "Many times I can predict what kind of night I'm going to have by who the refs are. I'm not saying they are all crooked—but [Donaghy] ain't the only one, and that's for sure." This player has no evidence that any other NBA officials may be involved in wrongdoing, and before last week, before the Donaghy news broke, even making such a charge would have been deemed outrageous and irresponsible. But now? The NBA is facing a situation akin to the steroid problem in baseball, where every home run comes with an asterisk. In the NBA, every questionable call, at least for the foreseeable future, will kindle a question mark in the mind of every fan, player and coach: is that referee on the level?