NBA: When Fans Blow the Whistle
Obsessive sports fans are a notoriously erudite breed, possessing a knowledge of the game and its nuances that surpass even those professionals whom they critique. An all-star? Nah, he's a bum. Even I coulda made that shot--or that call.
So when reports emerged that NBA referee Tim Donaghy was implicated in an ongoing federal investigation of organized crime for allegedly rigging games--betting on their outcomes and sharing information--some fans went over the top in their outrage.
The keyword for everyone here is "rigging," and in this case, it does not mean what many fans initially thought. NBA Commissioner David Stern refuses to discuss any accusations that Donaghy's officiating caused any one team to unjustly emerge victorious, and other independent investigations reveal that few situations exist where these claims could be valid.
Instead, the most damning charges center not around whether Donaghy altered the outcomes of games at all, but merely the total number of points scored in the game--a key aspect of sports gambling that most fans don't consider. A referee can control points scored more easily than the end result of a game without getting caught; Donaghy has led the league in technical fouls called and free throws given last season, ensuring teams the greatest amount of opportunities to score.
The accusations and mounting evidence against Donaghy are serious and will leave the NBA scrambling to regain credibility. But the reality, in this case, is still much less sensational than the idea that Donaghy could have actually "rigged" the results of important games. That hasn't stopped a few fans from embarking on their own independent investigations, however, reviewing some of Donaghy's games and posting the videos on YouTube, drawing considerable attention in the process.
Right now, the game generating by far the most Internet buzz is Game 3 of this year's Western Conference Semifinals between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs. YouTube user Calo2006's investigation of the game has garnered over 250,000 views.
The scene: With the best-of-seven series between the league's two best teams tied at one game each, Donaghy and his crew officiated one of the playoffs' most pivotal games, and did it badly. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons called it "the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs," and the lowlights featured in the video certainly support the statement. (Calo2006 notes that he doesn't personally believe that the game is fixed, but instead released the video (view at the top of this page) so people could judge for themselves.)
Spurs guard Manu Ginobili manages to draw a foul after missing a lay-up. The call comes from Donaghy, who stands 50 feet away and fails to blow his whistle until most of the players have already turned and started running down the court. This would be permissible (barely) had a foul actually occurred. Tempers flare and confusion increases. Even ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen breaks standard neutrality protocol to say he did not see any contact between Ginobili and any Suns players.
In subsequent clips, Suns star point guard Steve Nash consistently draws contact, even taking a knee in the groin while defending Spurs forward Bruce Bowen, but gets no love from Donaghy and his crew. Later, Suns center Amare Stoudemire gets called for a suspicious fourth foul early in the third quarter, limiting him to only 21 minutes of playing time and severely hurting the Suns' chances for victory.
By the time the tape ends, many fans could be ready to put on their tinfoil hats, put down the Kool-aid, and cry "conspiracy." As Simmons wrote, "expect the highlights of this game to eventually become the Zapruder Film of the Donaghy Scandal."
But is a bum automatically a lawbreaker? Donaghy may eventually be found guilty of rigging games, but on this tape, he appears less of a crook than incompetent. For starters, Donaghy's entire crew, not just Donaghy, is ultimately responsible for Game 3's officiating atrocities, which goes against Stern's claim that Donaghy acted alone. Even though Donaghy does make the most egregious call of the game (Ginobili's drive,) partners Eddie F. Rush and Greg Willard are shown making just as many bad calls and drawing just as much ire from Suns players. This video doesn't implicate Donaghy, it just reinforces every smug fan's belief that referees are fools. In fact, every YouTube video that has spotlighted Donaghy since the scandal broke merely points out that he can make a few bad calls.
It appears that YouTube has allowed sports figures to become more like presidential candidates in the media hotseat. They will get persecuted for slipups, and observers will waste no time in blowing these events out of proportion. Howard Dean screams, therefore he must be a crazed lunatic unfit for the presidency. Tim Donaghy calls more fouls than other refs in a particular game, therefore his bad calls cost someone's favorite team a key victory.
The fan-generated attempts at proving Donaghy's crookedness also reveal another trend: many sports fans want to go beyond what the mainstream media reports and use the technology that DVRs, video editing software, and YouTube provides to break their own stories. If they can generate enough buzz, then major media players would have to report it (as Simmons and popular sports blog Deadspin have done.)
Unfortunately, fan-generated journalism is still in its infant stage, meaning that fan rage still ultimately dictates the discourse of the most popular videos. The Donaghy video merely continues a trend of firing up bitter sports fans eager to point out minor officiating flaws, using a few calls at most to determine exactly how the refs cheated or how their team got screwed instead of nobly admitting that their team just didn't play well enough. After all, where's the fun in that?
While these videos may evoke a promising view of the future, where citizen journalists can provide a provocative alternative, but passion alone does not necessarily produce convincing videos. It is practically impossible to prove the "we got screwed" conspiracy theory about Donaghy or any other referee. So unless obsessed sports fans can stop screaming, the rest of us will be left to wonder whether they have anything better to do.