The indignation is widespread. The public is appalled. Allegations that NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games that he officiated has become the scandal of the moment, scurrilous enough to outrank Barry Bonds' steroid suspicions and Michael Vick's dog fighting connection in an ESPN.com poll of recent sins fans find most disturbing.
Why all the hysteria? Are we really so naive as to believe that every athletic event in this country is on the up and up? Are we so sheltered to accept that somewhere someone is always conspiring for a way to get ahead of the game? Or is there a widespread belief that sports in these United States are somehow shielded from the tentacles of corruption that extend around the globe?
In January, the Portuguese Soccer Federation commenced proceedings against 11 referees suspected of participating in a match-fixing scandal dubbed the "Golden Whistle." That same month the Polish government detained 70 referees, owners and club officials for bribery and match fixing.
In February, soccer authorities in Zimbabwe's Premier League launched an investigation that one team paid off another to secure a vital victory that kept it from being relegated to the second division. Meanwhile, in Brazil, two fans won restitution for ticket costs in a court case filed after 11 match results were annulled because the games were fixed.
Shall we go on? Why not? A coach and seven players were fired from a Chinese second division soccer team in April on suspicions of fixing a match. In May, a referee was among four Israelis convicted of fixing results of games played in 2003. Jail terms and suspensions were issued in Vietnam this month to seven soccer referees and two sports officials involved in orchestrating tainted results. Yet none of these scandals is as jarring and dynamic as the one that rocked Italy, which saw two of its elite clubs, Juventus and AC Milan (think Yankees and Red Sox), among those implicated in a fixing scheme.
All indications are that the case against Donaghy, who was under investigation by the FBI, amounts to a slam dunk. NBA Commissioner David Stern dispensed with customary pretense upon issuing a league statement on Friday, calling Donaghy "an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports," when most would have hidden in the safe harbor of due process and requested understanding while the legal system ran its course.
Give Stern credit for accepting the investigative results and moving emphatically to reestablish public trust. He promised "that no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared . . . to protect against this ever happening again." Although it'll be interesting to see how Stern, as well as fellow commissioners, might manage that feat.
The surprise is not that a referee in one of the four major U.S. team sports is alleged to have been on the take. What's surprising, some might even say reassuring, is that it has taken this long for there to be so nefarious a breach in the code of honor uncovered involving a game official. To believe that it will never happen again is to deny how lucrative it can be to give in to temptation.
Already there are suggestions that the NBA and other sports leagues can further deter game officials from taking bribes by simply paying them more. That's shallow reasoning, as illustrated by the case involving Donaghy. He's 40. His house in Bradenton, Fla., is now on the market for $1.3 million. Hurting he wasn't. By all accounts this was no get-rich-quick scheme but instead a desperate, misguided effort to pay off debts accrued through his gambling. A raise in salary wouldn't have solved his woes. And besides, something's amiss when we feel moved to debate the market price of integrity.
Granted, it's a sad day for U.S. sports when one of its game officials is tied up in gambling corruption. One clings to the hope it's an isolated case. But is it all that much different than Bonds and who knows how many others having shrouded baseball in the fog of steroid suspicions? It still amounts to tampering with the results, maybe not those on the field but certainly those in the record book.