Mike Derer/AP
Ron Johnson, NBA senior vice president
of referee operations

NBA Looks To Improve Image of Its Referees

October 31, 2008 11:58 AM
by Denis Cummings
In the wake of the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal and accusations of fixes, the NBA has taken several steps to improve the credibility of its officials.

NBA Conducts Investigation, Hires Army General

This July, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was given a 15-month prison sentence for gambling on NBA games and providing inside information to gamblers. He claimed that there were other corrupt referees and accused the NBA of ordering referees to fix games.

In an attempt to clean up the image of NBA referees, the league hired former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz to investigate its officiating system and created a new position—the senior vice president for referee operations—to oversee referees. It hired a man with no connection to the league, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Ronald L. Johnson, to fill the position.

Johnson will evaluate the performance of referees and accept complaints directly from teams. He is analyzing patterns of on-court calls to determine if certain calls are being made too often or not enough, and says that he plans to address the number of technical fouls and the treatment of star players.

He is also going to strictly enforce rules and regulations for referees, many of which were ignored in the past. Referee Joey Crawford, who has at times been a subject of controversy himself, welcomes Johnson’s authority. “We finally have somebody who is just ours,” he said. “Before, we had people that had 7,000 hats. He’s not going to be easy, but he’s a leader. And we’re dying to be led, to be honest with you.”

The NBA hopes that the recommendations in the Pedowitz report and the hiring of Johnson will help restore the credibility of its referees, which was questioned even before the Donaghy scandal. Johnson says that referees will be more accountable and more accessible to the media, which he hopes will change the way people think about NBA officiating.

“Let me put it this way: Perception is never false,” said Johnson. “You try to educate people so that they never get those perceptions.”

Background: Donaghy and the credibility of NBA referees

NBA referees have long been criticized for being incompetent or corrupt, much more so than referees in other leagues. Fans, players, coaches and owners have all complained that referees favor star players and big-market teams, and there are many conspiracy theories saying that the NBA orders referees to influence games.

Many believe that some referees allow personal relationships to dictate their officiating.
This claim, evidenced in the case in which referee Joey Crawford ejected the Spurs’ Tim Duncan for smiling at him, was supported by the Pedowitz report, which said referee Dick Bavetta called games with an “effort to keep games close or to ingratiate himself with a team.” There was also a scientific report accusing referees of racial bias, though few in the league or the media took it seriously.

For many, the revelation of Donaghy’s gambling connections in July 2007 confirmed fears that NBA referees were corrupt. Over the next year, Donaghy would allege that other referees were involved in gambling and game-fixing. Particularly damaging to the NBA’s credibility was the allegation that the league fixed playoff games in 2005 and 2006 by ordering referees to make biased calls.

“Even if Donaghy is absolutely the sleaze the NBA now paints him to be and even if he was the only referee acting in such a way, which the league also wants us to believe, the NBA is going to have to deal in a broader way with the perception that results are massaged … if not downright manipulated,” wrote The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon.

The league hired former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz to investigate its officiating and it hoped that his report would help restore credibility. It was released in October and said that there was evidence of other corruption. However, few in the media took the report seriously and it did little to diminish the controversy.

“Will the Pedowitz report bring any semblance of closure to the story?” asked ESPN’s Marc Stein. “Nope. None.” Though it had little effect on the NBA’s public image, the report did offer several suggestions for improving referees’ credibility. They include giving the media greater access to referees, reporting complaints about referees to other teams, and requiring referees to document personal contact with players and team officials.

“The best we can do is the best we can do,” said commissioner David Stern. “And that’s all we can do. And if I spoke of confidence, I would be exaggerating. The only thing I’m confident of is that … no one will have a better system than we do.”

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