Nothing creates more posturing in sports than does gambling. No one in authority wants to be labeled soft on gambling. My heavens, you might as well be called soft on al-Qaida.
So now we have a situation, to listen to the Chicken Littles, where the very integrity of the National Basketball Association is being threatened because one lousy, rotten referee apparently tried to manipulate game scores.
Actually, I'm just amazed it hasn't happened before in basketball — college or pro. In fact, it probably has. Because there are so many calls in basketball and because so much of it involves acute judgment — especially in something borderline like whether contact near the basket constitutes a charge or a block — basketball is a game that can most easily be affected by a crooked official.
The simple total number of fouls that are called against both teams can influence the total score, which is the basis for over-and-under betting. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that when the wayward ref, Tim Donaghy, did make bad calls, he was so clever at it that the league's scrutiny failed to catch his dirty work. There is no evidence that his fellow refs, working right alongside him, even suspected anything.
Does this indict the NBA's oversight of its officials? No, it just indicates how incredibly difficult the game is to officiate and how referees are subject to the same human frailty as the rest of us.
The NBA has many franchises, none of which has ever been located in the Garden of Eden. Hey, rogue cops also abound. Traitors pop up in the CIA. Who hasn't expected that malfeasance might emerge in the officiating corps? Who can't understand that the league cannot monitor every nook and cranny of the private life of every official — or every player or every coach?
Ironically, a fallout of this one isolated case, though, is that Las Vegas may end up being punished. Vegas continues to explode in population and is now the largest metropolitan area in the country without a major-league franchise.
It's a particularly hot basketball town. In fact, in summertime, Las Vegas is to the NBA what Crawford, Texas, is to the White House, because the league runs an informal competition for its young players there, and the Strip turns into an NBA convention. Team USA has been practicing there for the Olympics. Twenty-four-hour town meets 24-second clock. But because Nevada is the only place in America which countenances legal betting on games that human beings play, the NBA is skittish to move a team there. Now, with this scandal, all the more so.
That's so cockeyed because Vegas is the very vaccination against sports fixing. The instant odd amounts of money come in on any team, Vegas goes on the alert and advises the authorities. It's much more likely that Donaghy's betting buddies wagered illegally somewhere else, not legally in Nevada.
It is so goofy that the United States is one big casino now, a confederation of lotteries, but betting on sports is driven underground in 49 states. And it's just as foolish to think that one dirtball referee is going to ruin the NBA — or to stop people from gambling on its games.
I'll betcha that.