Today's sports pages are filled with allegations made by disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy about the recent history of "manipulated games." Basketball Commissioner David Stern has rebutted Donaghy's charges, but it is so very difficult to erase the allegations from the public's mind even if they are the totally fabricated effort of a convicted felon to reduce the punishment he is about to receive.
It is hard to overestimate the damage these allegations can cause not only to basketball, but to all professional and amateur sports. Everyone knows about the ubiquitous gambling that has accompanied our games since their inception. Within a few years of the first baseball game in 1846, newspapers reported that the crowds attending the Fashion Race Course all-star baseball series in Corona, Queens in 1858 spent more time wagering than watching the best players of the day competing on the field.
Gambling brought with it the possibility -- perhaps the inevitability -- of fixed games. The first proven incident of "hippodroming," as it was called in the nineteenth century, occurred in 1865 when the New York Mutuals lost to the Brooklyn Eckfords in the game they should have won. We all know about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, but the National Game had been afflicted with fixed games throughout the prior six decades. The greatest scandal involved four leading members of the baseball club from Louisville who threw the National League pennant in 1877 in exchange for cash.
Although there have always been allegations about referees and umpires taking bribes in exchange for particular outcomes, Donaghy's accusations are the most telling in the history of American sports. We enjoy the diversion of sports because the outcome of every contest is uncertain. In virtually all sports, the best clubs lose some games and the worst clubs win some along the way. Since on "any given Sunday" the underdog might triumph, spectators and viewers will watch to see what happens. If the game's outcome is predetermined, we are no longer in the realm of sports. We are just watching the commission of a crime.
It is amazing that our neutrals on the field and on the court have been free from these allegations for so long. While we learn from childhood that baseball umpires have poor eyesight when it comes to negative calls against our side's heroes, we do not suppose that their errors have been purchased by someone who would benefit from a particular outcome. If this were the case, the doggerel "kill the ump" might turn out to be a literal injunction and not a figurative expression of displeasure.
Any observer of the business of sports has to be very worried about Donaghy's claims. If basketball referees consciously shade their calls to aid one club or the other, the games are history. College students shaving points in New York City in the 1950s was troubling enough, but the game is lost if the integrity of refereeing is shattered. You can't even make a good illegal bet (or a legal bet at a Las Vegas sports book) unless you think the game will be determined on the merits!
David Stern understands the risks created by Donaghy's accusations. He has been one of the great leaders of the business of sports for a very long time, and it will take all of his talents to keep his enterprise from irreparable damage. In the short run, hurling epithets addressing Donaghy's "desperation" may work. In the long run, however, we must all be reassured that in all our sports, the game is played on a level playing field that is not tilted by the referees.