What a week for sports, Diane. What an awful, horrible week for sports.
There is of course the NFL’s little Vick problem, which came seemingly right on the heels of Pacman Jones and his ability to control the weather even indoors, which was roughly concurrent with the drawn-out fuckfest that is major league baseball’s steroid scandal, which began around the same time that the sports world was rolling their eyes over the NBA’s Stephen Jackson shooting up a strip club parking lot, which was pretty much the dessert course in relation to the meaty steak of Jackson and Artest personally slugging every person in the stands at the Palace in Detroit. Yes, it’s been a raging whirlwind of hot mess in the big sports leagues, lo these last few years. And the whirlwind is bringing us full circle. Apparently, it’s the NBA’s turn again.
This week in big sports scandals, it turns out that pro basketball’s referees are not just incompetent game-changing powermad morons, but also point spread and over/under-manipulating bastards who very possibly have changed the outcome of games for their own personal gain. We can thank Tim Donaghy for this. Whether he is the only gambling-addicted ref who was being influenced by his mob connections to inflate game scores* or not, doesn’t really matter. The integrity of the game – what little integrity it had left; what scraps and shreds of plausible deniability the commish had managed to protect in his steely-clawed mitts – is gone.
Everything people have said about the NBA (and to a lesser extent the NFL) for years suddenly seems like it might be true. In one fell swoop it went from “We never landed a man on the moon!” conspiracy theory insanity, to “I just found the fake moon set, along with a package of photos that explains in detail how they did it,” capital-T Truth. Frozen envelopes in the Patrick Ewing lottery (the year the Knicks famously, and against the odds, won a franchise center away from several smaller markets)? Sure, could be! Officials changing games to prolong a playoff series and bring in more ad revenue? Why wouldn’t they? The league fixing a series so the teams they want advance and viewership of the finals increases? Naturally! Refs with grudges or biases or a financial stake in a game’s outcome sending some random guy to the charity stripe 30 times just so the Clippers finally beat the Spurs? You bet, they would do it. You bet, they DID it. You bet. (And Tim did bet. And bet, and bet, and bet.*)
If there’s one thing that is paramount in sports fandom, it’s a belief in the fairness of the sport. Rigging scandals, things like thrown boxing matches or the Black Sox World Series, can shake the foundations of a pro sports league. They rarely topple it, but they can make fans cynical – make them tune in to fewer games. Make them spend less money on team hats and be-logoed shirts.
While the NFL can take that bullet, many times over, the NBA and MLB cannot. Right now the NFL is wearing a bulletproof vest and is behind cover, but the NBA and MLB are already shot in the leg, rolling around on the floor, and happened to forget their kevlar today. Both leagues have been battling swooning ratings, declining television revenues, and major image problems in recent years. They’re both multi-billion dollar businesses, which makes this a little hard to explain, but these are not good times for either league – not compared to football. Football will shrug off Vick and his dog-killing, though I wish that it would not. But basketball has a real problem here. A potential “moving to smaller TV channels” or “closing down some of its smaller market teams and tightening the belt” kind of problem. A problem that could ripple down to a struggling franchise like the one I follow, the Indiana Pacers.
Last year I watched about one fourth as much Pacer basketball as I did the previous season. In part this was because the Pacers are currently a mediocre-to-bad team with a patchwork roster, but the main reason was that it was just hard to support them given the way they have been run recently. They never took the right approach with problem children like Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest – or Jamal Tinsley, who was much more of a difficulty on the court than off it. The organization didn’t seem interested in satisfying their fans. They seemed to just hope the crises would go away. When they didn’t, management started trading guys for 70 cents on the dollar, and running ads on local TV affiliates suggesting that they were really trying now. Really getting their shit together. But it was too little, too late. Pacer game attendance is in the toilet, and I empathize with all those other non-attending fans completely. It’s hard to be a Pacer fan right now.
Well pretty soon, the whole league might have that problem. You can’t pay a lot of money to go to a game whose outcome might be determined by something other than the efforts and talents of the participants. You can’t have a good time when your team is in a one-and-done playoff situation, a critical game five or seven, and you have a real reason to think that their win or loss was created by someone who stood to make money off the result. Even though a lot of these theories are as groundless and as far-fetched as they were last week, Tim Donaghy has made them seem more realistic.
There’s been a lot of talk of asterisks in sports. Asterisks affixed next to records that don’t mean what they seem to mean, for one reason or another. Fans wanted to put an asterisk next to the San Antonio Spurs’ first NBA title because they won in a season cut in half by a players’ strike. Fans want to put an asterisk on a lot of recent baseball records because of steroids (and if not that, then juiced baseballs and smaller ballparks and so forth). There is a growing army of disgruntled people waiting to asterisk the hell out of those numbers we love. To basically shoot holes in the walls of sport itself.
Well, this is the ultimate asterisk. You can put one on the whole NBA. Thanks a fuckload, Tim.*
* You can just throw the word “allegedly” before or after a lot of the sentences in this article if it makes you feel better. I’m tired of typing it, whether sarcastically or otherwise. Yes, it’s possible Mr. Donaghy didn’t do some of the things that are being said or implied in the media. No, that is not very meaningful in the context of what I’m rambling on about today.