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Donaghy Investigation Highlights Issue of Referee Bias

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Someone sent me an email yesterday with a link to a video of “highlights” from Game 3 of this year’s Suns-Spurs playoff series.  The video’s premise is that Tim Donaghy helped fixed the series so that the Spurs would win, or so that they would at least have an advantage.  Although I haven’t seen a video dedicated to it, a better example could be made of the horrendous officiating that took place in Game 4 of the Jazz-Spurs series.  Watching some of the blatant missed calls – some by Donaghy, some by other refs officiating the game – makes me wonder what level of objectivity should be expected of professional referees.

In a court of law, the intention of the system is to produce a verdict that is as independent as possible from the prejudices of the jurors.  People who have too much familiarity with the person and issue in question, or whose backgrounds demonstrate that they would have “unfair” presumptions about the case are intentionally excluded from participating in any particular jury.  In the NBA and other professional leagues, such a lack of acquaintance with the players on trial throughout each game isn’t possible, since essentially the same referees are working the same games with the same players year after year.  Trends naturally develop, and it becomes somewhat obvious that refs develop biases towards or against particular teams or players.

For example, watch a few games in which Rasheed Wallace plays, and you’ll see that he generally gets technical fouls called on him more quickly and with less provocation than many other players.  I watched one game a few years ago in which the referee was upset that Wallace was looking at him in a way that he didn’t unappreciated.  Two technicals were called within minutes of each other and Wallace out of the game.  On the other hand, somehow Manu Ginobili has positioned himself as a “picked on” player who always seems to have the refs watching his back.  I’ve seen so many phantom fouls called against players defending Ginobili on plays where he makes a sloppy move to the basket and misses (reference the first part of the video I linked to above) that I have to wonder how he earned such preferential treatment.

There was a recent study published by some statisticians who concluded that white referees are more likely to call a foul on black players than on white ones.  The NBA obviously denied the claim, but the study is another example of at least the potential that any particular referee comes into each and every game he calls with a perspective that creates bias.  Whether he thinks Adam Morrison is a hippy so he lets the bigger guys hammer away at him, or whether he doesn’t like Allen Iverson’s tatoos and corn rows, there is no NBA, MLB, NCAA or other referee who doesn’t carry into the game a perception that influences how he calls the game.

The issue with the Donaghy situation is that the bias is taken to a higher level.  Since Donaghy’s indictment, claims have been made that there are others involved in betting on games over which they have some influence, including players.  The NBA has had a reputation for manipulating what should be pure competition in the interest of marketing and profit.  If it’s found that this betting scandal is widespread, fans like me may have more reason to think that we might be better off watching professional wrestling.

Richard Robbins is VP of operations for Robbins Sports, a retailer of basketball uniforms, basketball goals, and other basketball equipment.