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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fear and conspiracy in the NBA: an erosion of trust

Published: August 24, 2012
Section: Sports

Whether it was an alleged over-aggressive call or a call perceived to be missed, the referees quickly became a story in the NBA playoffs this year. While many have called for a complete revamping of NBA officiating, arguing that referees are inept and even corrupt in some cases, Nolan Fine, a former NBA referee for 16 years disagrees entirely.

Fine refereed from 1988 to 2004, including the Rookie All-Star game in Cleveland and multiple first and second round playoff series. He entered refereeing after watching the Virginia Squires, one of the original ABA franchises. “For some reason, I didn’t identify with the players so much as the referees running up and down the court,” he said in an interview with The Hoot.

Much of the public’s waning trust is centered around NBA commissioner David Stern, and Tim Donaghy, a former referee who served jail time for betting on games.

There is a perception among basketball fans that Stern is arrogant, secretive and dismissive of league criticism. Fine, however, strongly disagreed.

“David has been a tremendous commissioner. He took over when the league was in a terrible mess [with] drug problems, ratings problems and a true identity problem throughout the country, and he took the league and made it without question one of the most outstanding [sports] organizations.”

Donaghy presents a far more complicated problem for the NBA. He refereed 13 seasons in the NBA from 1994 to 2007. During his career, he was a relative unknown official who refereed 772 regular season games and 20 playoff games. But on July 9, 2007, Donaghy resigned from the NBA after reports surfaced that he had bet on games and intentionally made calls to affect the point spreads. The revelation sent shockwaves throughout the NBA.

“The Donaghy scandal did a terrible disservice to not just NBA officials but all officials. The Donaghy period gave the public the perception that all officials, no matter what sport, are questionable, suspect and on and on,” Fine said. “The fact of the matter is that all officials I have ever been involved with have the utmost professionalism, character and integrity. Unfortunately, the Donaghy scandal is a terrible black cloud that will take a long time to subside, if at all.”

While fans had always discussed conspiracy theories at bars and among themselves, they were always taken as just that: conspiracy theories. But the Donaghy scandal gave legitimacy to all conspiracy theories whether they involved the draft or playoff series.

While many argue that the NBA needs to combat these perceptions, Fine commented, “No matter what the NBA does those that are conspiracy theorists will continue to be conspiracy theorists. Since the dark days of Donaghy, the NBA has gone through great lengths to make referees more personable allowing the referees to do more interviews to break the barrier of official to media to fan so [the fan] sees a more human side of the official.”

“There is tremendous accountability every time you walk on the court with the cameras, replays and ESPN,” Fine said. “Officials are rated based on various categories the first of course being their judgment on how they call games, and if an official does not perform to the standards the NBA requires, their ratings will certainly not be very high,” Fine said.

At the end of each season, officials are rated from one to 60 and in the playoffs, the league uses the top 36 ranked referees in the first round, the top 28 in the second round, the top 18 in the conference finals and the top 12 in the NBA finals, Fine said. “As you advance in the playoffs, your financial remuneration is substantial,” he added. This gives a financial incentive for referees to get calls correctly.

A common complaint that fans have is the perceived tendency of officials to call a game differently in the last one to two minutes of a game than they have in the first 46.

“It is really important for officials to know the impact their whistle has on a player, coach, team and changes in standings. We do not just blow the whistle to blow the whistle. We want to put air in the whistle on plays that have an impact on advantages or disadvantages for players,” Fine said. “We certainly want to make sure that when a player has four fouls that his fifth and sixth fouls are 110 percent correct and that the call can be defended and justified by the league office.”

Stemming from the Donaghy incident, when officials make a mistake, they are immediately called corrupt, cheaters and other various insults of character. Fine believes these mini-controversies are overblown.

“Players make mistakes: they shoot air balls, they double dribble and they throw balls out of bounds. Referees are human too. We make mistakes. We don’t want to be human; we want to be perfect, but it’s not a perfect business,” Fine said.