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Defining Game "Fixing"

2008 June 11
by Brian Goff

ESPN’s Marc Stein offers a stinging critique of the NBA in his NBA Has No Quick Fix for Donaghy Charges. Stein doesn’t really buy the outright fixing allegations, noting that David Stern’s company critic, Mark Cuban can’t even go along:

“There’s no way on God’s green Earth that David Stern has ever done anything to influence the outcome of a game.”

Nonetheless, Stein points out how the NBA’s practices have led to a reality-perception problem:

The nightmarish reality that hangs over what was supposed to be Stern’s dream Finals is that public confidence in NBA officiating is maybe even lower now than it was when Donaghy’s betting on games and association with known gamblers were first revealed last summer. With no clear-cut way to raise it.After the Lakers lost Game 2 of these Finals in Boston, shooting only 10 free throws to the Celtics’ 38? After the Lakers took a must-win Game 3 at home to slice the series deficit to 2-1 and save their season, shooting 20 of the evening’s first 24 free throws and with Kobe Bryant going to the line 18 times?

He later adds:

This is the only sports league in America in which it’s a routine reaction by folks on the inside as well as the outside to respond to bitter defeat with charges of biased refereeing or outright game-rigging. It’s a massive problem magnified by the fact that no one I’ve encountered in 15 years of covering the league is overflowing with suggestions for how to stop such perceptions from mushrooming any further, let alone for how to put a halt to them.

Like Stein, my inclinations are not to buy the allegations that charge (or very nearly charge) outright game fixing. Yet, manipulating outcomes is more complex than a stark black and white, fix-no fix. The NBA’s public perception stems from their practice of leaning too much toward the manipulation end. See my post from April 2007. As I noted there, The Jordan Rules, published way back in 1993 drew attention to the practice of picking refs in playoff series on a game-by-game basis. The author and players in the book didn’t see this as “picking the winner” but as raising the likelihood of extending the series by selecting refs whose tendencies worked in one or the other team’s favor. That kind of charge is certainly backed up by Donaghy’s allegations as well as Stein’s criticisms. While not as damning as the strongest “fixing” charge, they do point toward a long term denial of the underlying problem by the NBA.

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