NBA Commissioner David Stern is generally credited with having led his league out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Faced with a deteriorating business model and by hemorrhaging balance sheets, Stern resurrected an entertainment goldmine. Great stars, led by Michael Jordan, Larry Byrd and Magic Johnson, led the charge, attracting the American sports fan and his dollars. Basketball became the world's second most favorite sport after soccer. When I taught Sports Law on sabbatical in the UK, my European graduate students wanted to know whether I knew Michael Jordan personally. I assured them that he had never defeated me in a game of one-on-one. No one bothered to ask if we had ever played.
Now Commissioner Stern has floated a trial business balloon that could cement his reputation as a master of innovation. Alternatively, it could just be a significant faux pas. He suggested last week that accepting legalized gambling as a part of the NBA product was a "possibility" that "may be a huge opportunity" now that gambling no longer carries the curse of immorality. Even expressing the thought was quite a gamble.
Perhaps this was Stern's unlikely way to deal with the aftermath of the scandal involving an established NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, who admitted betting on games and supplying the mob with insider information. Since Donaghy has served his time in jail, Stern might think about appointing him to head the new gambling bureau of the NBA since he is certainly familiar with the terrain.
The problem with gambling, of course, is not its immorality. That has been clear since the Catholic Church discovered bingo and the states jumped on board with lottery games. The problem, especially when betting involves an easily understood and adjustable point spread as in basketball, is that games close to the point spread will be subject to question. While Donaghy claimed on 60 Minutes that he never shaved points and even threw a coach out of a game knowing he had money on his team, the implicit admission is that he could have affected the games had he not been so "scrupulously honest." The heart of his inside information was that he knew who was refereeing a game and he knew those referees' predilections concerning the players who would be competing. They would make calls against the complainers. No one has refuted this explosive claim, although the NBA is certainly examining the data.
Stern would respond that there is so much money already bet on professional basketball that the NBA would simply be capturing the vig that would otherwise go to the dark side. I have no doubt that the NBA could run the betting game in a safer way, much as the gambling shops in the UK protect the gambling handle and off-track betting accomplishes the same for horse racing in many places in this country.
The problem comes in confusion about the product the NBA is selling. The NBA markets wonderful athletic competition with extremely talented players who are perhaps the best athletes on the court, field or rink. The entire enterprise would fall with even one example of a game being decided on something other than the merits of play. Point shaving is as deleterious as game throwing. Moreover, fixing games need not be perfect. Donaghy said he was only correct 75% of the time, and on that basis he could have made millions.
One factor the NBA has going for it is that its players already are millionaires on their way to becoming multimillionaires. No one would confuse Lebron James' net worth with that of any member of the 1919 Chicago White Sox who were chiseled out of every penny by owner Charles Comiskey. (They were originally called the "Black Sox" because Comiskey was too cheap to launder their filthy uniforms.) No one should suggest that NBA basketballers need more pocket money that can only be supplied by nefarious interests. On the other hand, greed has always been a powerful motivator, even for the already rich, like Bernie Madoff, who continued to skim off his share of the loot long after he was comfortably rich.
Perhaps Commissioner Stern is being realistic and foresighted. Gambling is part of the game now. The only issue is who should benefit from it. Even if Stern has seen the future - the land of Canaan - and he has the legitimacy to pursue it, it is unlikely to occur. My guess is that the commissioners of the other major sports were soon on the phone to David Stern to suggest that he save his musings for his memoirs.
Baseball was almost destroyed by the gambling that corroded the sport for five decades before the Black Sox scandal hit the front page. Only a monarchical Judge Landis could save the National Pastime from itself. European soccer is now in the early stages of a game-throwing cataclysm that is likely to severely injure the beautiful game. We seem to have finally ended the steroid era, but some other scandal will likely take its place. It would be nice to have a few years of just sports. Stern's interesting "possibility" should be shelved.
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