In a black suit and blue tie, wearing the colors of bruises, the typically grand David Stern arrived at a mic yesterday with the reduced look of an image viewed through binocular bottoms.
He was not haughty and pithy, but haunted and meek. He was not himself. Stern spoke softly — often with awkward pauses — as he explained what the N.B.A. knew of the F.B.I.’s investigation into whether the referee Tim Donaghy fixed games over the past two seasons.
Yes, the league’s internal security network of former “Dragnet” types and ex-spooks and retired spies missed detecting this scoundrel with a shady whistle.
No, he didn’t know Donaghy was at the center of an investigation into point shaving — the great taboo of sports — until the F.B.I. called the league June 20.
“My reaction was, ‘I can’t believe it’s happening to us,’ ” Stern said.
What’s not to fathom, though? Stern’s league has been rendered vulnerable by its longtime system of ref protectionism and false empowerment.
This is about ethical compromises the league has made over the years that have cultivated the God complexes of referees and provided a petri dish perfect to develop a rogue official.
Donaghy isn’t known to be among the nearly 20 N.B.A. referees in the late ’90s who caught the attention of I.R.S. investigators by exchanging first-class tickets for coach and pocketing a tax-free difference.
He was a witness to Stern’s response, though. In a sign of how deficient the N.B.A. officiating pool is, the league reinstated about a half-dozen of the tax cheats.
Why wouldn’t referees feel above the law if the league offered them loopholes in integrity?
The N.B.A. would go on to be hoodwinked by its blind faith in a flawed ref. In January 2005, Donaghy was questioned by the league for his part in a legal dispute with a neighbor near his home outside Philadelphia. A private eye from the league’s security department was directed to nose around Donaghy, to check out rumors of gambling and poke into the anger problems at issue.
The snooping came up dry. And Donaghy delivered a denial.
“He informed us that the allegations against him were untrue,” Stern said. “And that he was the person that was being harassed by his neighbor, not as alleged by the neighbor, that he was harassing the neighbor.”
The league believed Donaghy, its unimpeachable ref.
Stern has never conceded a human element in officiating. To him, the referees are always above reproach and suspicion. And yet the relationship between coaches, players and officials has become increasingly antagonistic in recent years.
Some players and coaches quietly point to a class differential that has grown exponentially over the last decade. As Stern noted, Donaghy pulled in a solid salary of $260,000 last year — or a week’s pay for star players and some coaches. Does anger or envy ever figure into a call?
The league’s officiating monitors are numbers freaks — how many calls are made, rate of technical fouls, etc. — but they do not measure each referee’s conscience.
For years, coaches have complained about referees who ask players for autographed shoes or request a star’s attendance at a charity golf event or pal around with a team after hours. In 2002, through court documents filed by Karla Knafel, a former mistress of Michael Jordan’s, the referee Eddie F. Rush was portrayed as the cupid for the secret lovers.
“I feel comfortable with his explanation,” Stu Jackson, the N.B.A.’s vice president, said at the time. “Do I feel there is a problem? Absolutely not.”
Or maybe there was an issue. In 2004, there was an official codification of fraternization rules. Yet a year later, the policy was waived when the referee Bob Delaney enlisted N.B.A. stars for scrimmages to attract paying customers to his basketball camp at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla.
This ref-player relationship may seem too cozy to be cool, but the league always offers its refs the benefit of the doubt. Many of them are good citizens and good people.
But here, in his worst hour as commissioner yesterday, with his face pale from stress, Stern was still extolling the virtues of his officials with few qualifiers.
“Sometimes they perhaps carry themselves in a way that is not as modest as we would prefer, but they do their darnedest to get the result right,” Stern said. “And frankly, I’m more concerned, rather than chastising them, with reassuring them that I am committed to protecting them while at the same time making sure that we keep our covenant with our fans.”
The promise of purity was clouded long ago, when the league put referees above the law, when Stern continued to deify them without regard to their human faults, when Donaghy was cutting his teeth.
Protectionism isn’t what referees need. Protectionism is how the league got into this fix.