Was Ralph Nader Right About the NBA's Failure to Investigate Bad Refs?

As mentioned in my earlier post, disgraced NBA referree Timothy Donaghy has essentially accused the NBA of fixing games. In his sentencing letter (linked in my earlier post), he makes a thinly-veiled reference to game six of the Lakers-Sacramento series in 2002:

Referees A, F, and G were officiating a playoff series between the Team 5 and Team 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, [I] learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. [I] knew Refereees A and F to be "company men," always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series.

Ralph Nader complained about this game to NBA Commissioner Stern at the time in a letter that can be found here. What he wrote at the time takes on a whole new cast now:

Calls by referees in the NBA are likely to be more subjective than in professional baseball or football. But as the judicious and balanced Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote this Sunday, too many of the calls in the fourth quarter (when the Lakers received 27 foul shots) were "stunningly incorrect," all against Sacramento. After noting that the three referees in Game 6 "are three of the best in the game," he wrote: "I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6....When Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn't as much as touch Shaq. Didn't touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at courtside. It wasn't a foul in any league in the world. And Divac, on his fifth foul, didn't foul Shaq. They weren't subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls not only resulted in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento's two low-post defenders." And one might add, in a 106-102 Lakers' victory, this officiating took away what would have been a Sacramento series victory in 6 games.

This was not all. The Kobe Bryant elbow in the nose of Mike Bibby, who after lying on the floor groggy, went to the sideline bleeding, was in full view of the referee, who did nothing, prompted many fans to start wondering about what was motivating these officials.

Wilbon discounted any conspiracy theories about the NBA-NBC desire for a Game 7 etc., but unless the NBA orders a review of this game's officiating, perceptions and suspicions, however presently absent any evidence, will abound and lead to more distrust and distaste for the games in general.

Nader makes a point that I agree with: The NBA should not prohibit coaches and players from criticizing referees, on penalty of substantial fines.

Donahy's suggestions, contained in his letter, are less helpful. He suggests "that the league train referees to treat all players equally, regardless of popularity. This policy would help ensure that referees officiate games fairly." Well, yeah, but how are you going to do that?

UPDATE: As pointed out by a VC reader, there's a good, balanced discussion of the issue over at Salon, found here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Is the NBA Trying to Silence Donaghy?
  2. Was Ralph Nader Right About the NBA's Failure to Investigate Bad Refs?
  3. Does the NBA Rig Games?
alexis (mail) (www):
what does everyone think about judge alex kozinski's porn pics?

6.11.2008 9:10pm
JCAB (mail):
I once confronted a close friend and NBA worker who had a minor role with refs about failure of refs to call walking on Michael Jordan. He looked at me as if I was from Mars. He explained that the refs benefited from sold-out games and it was in their best interest to let Michael do his thing, regardless of walking rules. Perhaps in the events cited, the refs were just acing in their own self interest.
6.11.2008 9:22pm
Volokh Groupie:
I remember talking to a friend last summer who was part of the probe that was looking into nba match fixing/illegal gambling. Everything I heard from him indicated that it was a widespread problem with many refs involved as well as some other elements. I was very surprised to see that only Donaghy was fingered---I have no doubt that Stern and the higher ups covered up more widespread cheating (and I love basketball).
6.11.2008 9:34pm
sdao (mail):

what does everyone think about judge alex kozinski's porn pics?

shhhhh ... not to be discussed.
6.11.2008 9:36pm
JosephSlater (mail):
There's a good and balanced discussion of this issue by King Kaufmann on All I'll say is I definitely remember that Lakers-Kings game. I'm a Pistons fan, and I didn't have a dog in that fight, but I still remember thinking at the time that it was the worst-refereed sports game of any kind -- basketball or other, pro or amateur -- that I had ever seen.
6.11.2008 9:39pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I don't give a hoot about basketball, but do you think that Nader will stay fixated on this past the election?
6.11.2008 9:52pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

what does everyone think about judge alex kozinski's porn pics?

No harm, no foul. Eugene should have taught him about robots.txt.
6.11.2008 10:02pm
Volokh Groupie:

The Times reported that Kozinski said he must have accidentally uploaded the images to his server while trying to upload something else. He also said he would delete some material including a photo of naked women on all fours painted to look like cows, which he called "degrading," the newspaper said.

Kozinski said he began saving the sexually explicit materials and other items of interest years ago, the Times said.

"People send me stuff like this all the time," he said.

Eugene, so what exactly DO you include in your emails to Judge Kozinski?
6.11.2008 10:08pm
Volokh Groupie:
a link to the article the quotes from

Kozinski's naughtiness problem
6.11.2008 10:14pm
EH (mail):
Holy cow, does this raise Nader out of his Chomsky-esque limbo of the critical mainstream never conceding him a point? He has been a whipping-boy for so long it is truly surreal to read of anybody ever agreeing with him who isn't a Schmendrik voter.

what does everyone think about judge alex kozinski's porn pics?

Nothing I've read has indicated that they are illegal per se. I'm not so prudish as to criticize his taste beyond that.
6.11.2008 10:14pm
Adam B. (www):
I find the Kozinski mentions here to be rude; it's their blog, and they have every right to discuss what they want and avoid what they want. We're just visitors.

As to the actual post, there's no question to me that Game Six was screwy.
6.11.2008 10:14pm
Maybe someone can attempt a 'Freakonomics'-style analysis of the game officiating in major, and/or questionable, games.
6.11.2008 10:22pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Yeah... you don't see Volokh going to YOUR blogs and telling you what to write...
6.11.2008 10:29pm
The NBA has been overzealous in promoting the game at the expense of the integrity of the game, but I'm not sure there's a big gambling/game fixing conspiracy. I think Donaghy might actually be a "bad apple" in that respect.

As far as Kozinski goes, it probably is rude to flout the Conspirators, but. . . disagreements I may have with him notwithstanding, this quote from the link in Volokh Groupie's comment makes me admire his honesty and common sense:

"Is it prurient? I don't know what to tell you," he told the newspaper [about the pictures on his website]. "I think it's odd and interesting. It's part of life."
6.11.2008 10:43pm
NickM (mail) (www):
If Donaghy is telling the truth, what would the NBA investigate? Whether the refs adequately followed secret instructions?

6.11.2008 11:07pm
I seldom watch NBA games.

They are amazing displays of athletic ability, but seem to have little to do with basketball.
6.11.2008 11:46pm
Adam B. (www):
Daniel, especially my blog, though if Prof. Volokh wanted to participate in next year's seventh annual National Spelling Bee liveblog, I'd listen.
6.12.2008 12:11am
Cornellian (mail): is actually quite a good site. The political stuff is a bit lefty and not to everyone's taste (obviously) but there's a lot of non-political stuff too, like film reviews.
6.12.2008 12:33am
Richard A. (mail):
Ralph might have gotten this one right, but that Corvair was a heckuva car! Even Alex Kozinski could have picked up babes in that one.
6.12.2008 12:44am
LM (mail):
I agree with Adam B. I find the Kazinski trolling very rude to our hosts.
6.12.2008 12:55am
LM (mail):
6.12.2008 12:57am
Michael B. (mail):
Nader is perceptive here. He apparently becomes a real person watching basketball.
6.12.2008 1:11am
BruceM (mail) (www):
Wow it really amazes me at how many people think professional competative sports are real and not staged. No different than professional wrestling (which a lot of people think is real, too). There is a direct correlation between the belief a sport is not staged with the degree someone loves the sport. Big fans, no matter what, always think it's real. If you wear a Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirt, you probably think it's legitimate and not choreographed. Ditto for those wearing NBA or NFL t-shirts.
6.12.2008 1:43am
LM (mail):
Please tell me you don't think basketball is as illegitimate as wrestling. Or that you're kidding.
6.12.2008 2:03am
MaresEatsOatsAndDoesEatOats (mail):
NBA scandal or Kozinski scandal? Which is more interesting?
6.12.2008 2:26am
BruceM: Ditto for anyone wearing any shirt (or any clothes for that matter), as if reality was real. Have you ever heard of the concept of degree?
6.12.2008 2:44am
Was Ralph Nader Right...?

What a ridiculous question.

Nader was right about the NBA in 2002 and he's right for America now in 2008.
6.12.2008 6:45am

No different than professional wrestling (which a lot of people think is real, too).

Oh, I doubt they do. Pro wrestling is America's other original art form and I suspect its devotees are as aware they're watching a performance as jazz fans are.
6.12.2008 8:09am
Incidentally, how about a synthesis of competing themes: is there space in Ralph Nader's view of value-for-money porn for Dennis Rodman?
6.12.2008 8:18am
pete (mail) (www):

Oh, I doubt they do. Pro wrestling is America's other original art form and I suspect its devotees are as aware they're watching a performance as jazz fans are.

Many if not most older wrestling fans know it is completely staged and enjoy it anyways, but there are many on the younger age and low IQ range who do not realize this. Part of the fun of the "sport" is watching how easily the refs get distracted and never learn from their obvious mistakes like not noticing a folding steel chair getting thrown into the ring while their back is turned for 5 seconds.

I recommend the hard to find documentary Beyond The Mat for anyone interested in knowing just how staged wrestling is. Vince McMahon is behind the scenes even telling the commentators word for word what to say besides determining the outcome for matches. It also makes the point that the wrestlers are in legitimate pain and tend to abuse drugs and develop a lot of other problems over the years.
6.12.2008 9:42am
BruceM (mail) (www):
Most young wrestling fans I've either met or seen asked about it by others insist it's real and get offended at the notion that it's staged. But you might be right about some older wrestling fans. Very plausible.

PersonFromPorlock: by jazz do you mean the music or the utah jazz basketball team? I'd say both are performances, of course.

LM: any sport with referees is staged. Which is not to say the players are not great athletes and don't play their hearts out. But it's about making money. I'm not saying every single play of a basketball game is rehearsed and choreographed, with both teams practicing for weeks before the game to 'get it right' ... i'm saying it's like a globetrotters game, and the refs are in on it. They know which team will be more profitable for the company if it wins. So do the players. Put aside gambling for the moment (which also affects a lot of games, but more in regards to the spread than actually who wins... after all what's the harm in missing one shot to beat the spread when you have a 20 point lead? None, jesus doesn't care. All the players and refs work for the company, whether it be the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, etc. If a game can be influenced in a way that it will make the company's stock go up, that's what will happen.

I always thought it was obvious that NBA refs call fouls (among other things) to influence who wins. That this is some newly uncovered conspiracy is simply amazing to me.

But sports like golf and bowling, with no refs, are not staged, for the most part. Individual players will always miss/lose for betting purposes, but that's all.
6.12.2008 9:56am
Bpbatista (mail):
The NBA is crooked as the Mississippi. Any one who has watched a game knows that phanton fouls, make-up calls, and super-star treatment taint every game. Not to mention ignoring obvious violations like travellinig that occur on nearly every possession. The NBA and its officiating is a sorry joke.
6.12.2008 10:07am
Are NBA refs paid by the game?
6.12.2008 10:34am
LM (mail):

LM: any sport with referees is staged.

Easy to say, and you say it confidently. But confidence isn't evidence. Even accepting that for every notorious incident like the current one there might be others still undetected, you're still pretty low on the hierarchy of corruption Joseph Slater summarized, and nowhere near what you're claiming. Unsupported assertions of players altering their performance in what they believe is the league's economic interest are far-fetched.
6.12.2008 4:06pm
If it's wrong for the NBA to prohibit coaches and players from criticizing the officiating, is it equally wrong to prevent lawyers from criticizing the judiciary? It seems like every jurisdiction has ethical rules of that sort.
6.12.2008 4:32pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
LM: I think the refs alter/interfere far more often than the players do.

And just because something is ipse dixit doesn't mean it's not correct (especially when I say it, heh).
6.12.2008 8:47pm
LM (mail):
The Lakers look like they're about to lose a game I may only be able to live with by agreeing with you.
6.12.2008 11:34pm
LM (mail):
That does it. I'm voting for Nader.
6.13.2008 1:18am