David Stern spoke with the deep remorse of someone who had unwittingly committed vehicular homicide. "This is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or commissioner of the NBA," the league's boss said Tuesday at a New York press conference. "We take our obligation to our fans in this situation very, very seriously."
The "situation" Stern spoke of is the ongoing FBI investigation into allegations that former referee Tim Donaghy bet on games over which he officiated during the last two seasons. For years, Stern has been proud of the reputation of the NBA as the No Betting Allowed league and has been almost arrogantly defensive of the league's referees. So, when this scandal broke, some sports writers were ready to talk of comeuppance. But Stern has adopted the strategy that any smart figure in the sports world takes when wrongdoing is revealed: show contrition.
That was Stern's task Tuesday, and he performed it with dutiful chagrin. That is not to suggest Stern's melancholy during the hour-long press conference was an act. Stern has a reputation for sincerity. But in running the league for the last 23 years, Stern has learned how to survive the adversity of the business, and he does not believe the NBA will be irreparably harmed by this off-season scandal. "I think that our public, learning what we have done and what we are determined to do, is going to be by and large with us," he said.
Stern has reason to be positive. His league is not crippled. Rather it has suffered the equivalent of a pulled groin, an injury that lingers but is usually overcome. Americans generally, but sports fans especially, are a forgive-and-forget bunch, for whom hope always springs eternal for next season, regardless of their team's performance the previous year. Remember how the public disparaged Kobe Bryant when he stood trial for rape in 2003? Guess who had the NBA's best-selling jersey last season.
Stern's NBA has successfully rebounded from adversity before, and it will likely do so again. The league has seen fan attendance at games rise from 10 million in 1983 to 22 million last season over a period that also saw Earvin "Magic" Johnson announcing he was HIV-positive, Michael Jordan admitting to gambling in Atlantic City the night before a playoff game, Dennis Rodman kicking a cameraman and Ron Artest brawling with fans in the crowd during a game in Detroit.
At the press conference, Stern insisted repeatedly that, to his knowledge, Donaghy is simply a "rogue" referee and not part of any widespread fix among officials. The FBI investigation will shed light on that. If Stern is right, that would separate this scandal from the 1919 Chicago Black Sox or the recent steroid allegations that have dogged baseball in which the cheating appears to have been widespread.
Stern outlined the security procedures his league has in place to guard against such violations, including audits of its own auditors. Only the FBI's investigation will reveal how much more the NBA could have done to prevent a referee from betting and passing along confidential information, as Donaghy is expected to admit to doing, according to Stern.
The scandal is hardly trivial. If even one NBA ref, whose calls are often subjective and controversial, were shown to be tainted, it would strike at the very integrity of the game. When the NBA opens its season this fall and a referee blows a call, there will doubtless be more than one fan who will tap his buddy and say, "Hey, is that ref pulling a Donaghy?" But that's if fans even remember his name. The Donaghy scandal could grow; or, just as likely, it could sink into the oblivion of a slow summer news week with baseball hitting its dog days and even the British Open golf tournament missing the drama of its stellar attraction, Tiger Woods, in serious contention. So Commissioner Stern may have a right to feel confident. Sports fans have short memories. You can bet on it.
The original version of the article incorrectly stated that Ron Artest brawled with fans during a game in Indianapolis. The brawl actually occurred during a game in Detroit.