In Sports, 'G' Is The Scarlet Letter

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, August 16, 2007

There's no great outcome when a league is standing by helplessly while one of its referees is pleading guilty to manipulating the product and thereby threatening the very integrity of its competition.

Tim Donaghy admitted yesterday that he used inside information to provide recommendations (called "picks") for co-conspirators as to what team they should bet on in NBA games.

It's worse than the labor dispute that cut the 1998 season in half.

Every league has tragic losses of life, but nothing scares a sport's powers that be quite as much as the G-word. Gambling. Baseball is still wrestling with Pete Rose and betting on baseball. Paul Hornung, the Hall of Fame golden boy of the Green Bay Packers, was suspended an entire season for gambling. A referee, even one whose face you don't know and whose name you can't pronounce (Don-a-GEE), is the right arm of the game . . . any game. A referee probably has more opportunities to affect a single game than any manager or running back. So to say the league was worried about this Donaghy episode is a grand understatement.

Having said that, Donaghy's admission of guilt might possibly be the best-case scenario for the NBA under the circumstances. The last thing the league wanted to see was a trial; presumably there won't be salacious revelations now. There won't be daily reports from the stairs outside the courtroom. There won't be a discovery process that could open one Pandora's box after another. Bad as Donaghy's admissions are, the NBA can paint him, and perhaps accurately so, as a single rogue referee who acted on his own, not in concert with any other refs and not in concert with any players.

The optimistic assessment is that Donaghy is just one isolated sinner, though Commissioner David Stern is skeptical enough to keep up his review of the league's officiating program. The bad news is that Donaghy's buddies still calling NBA games are going to be submitted to a level of scrutiny like they never imagined, and necessarily so.

If misery loves company, the NBA at least isn't out there by itself.

We're in probably an unprecedented time of legal wrangling in sports. What a sportswriter needs more than anything to properly analyze the morning sports page is a law degree.

Donaghy pleads guilty and faces 25 years in prison!

Barry Bonds hires lawyers to defend himself against statements he considers defamatory from baseball frat brother Curt Schilling!

Jose Offerman is arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree assault for taking his bat to the mound, swinging, connecting and injuring two opposing players in a minor league game in Connecticut.

A Rutgers basketball player, Kia Vaughn, has sued Don Imus in New York, alleging his sexist and racially charged comments on the radio a few months ago have done damage to her character and reputation.

And of course, Michael Vick's attorneys are reportedly negotiating a plea deal with the federal government in his felony dogfighting case to keep the Falcons star's possible jail time to a minimum.

I used to write about playing time. Now it seems I spend more time writing about jail time.

Okay, Bonds's suit against Schilling would be frivolous at best because Bonds is a public figure. And to prove Schilling made knowingly or recklessly false statements, Bonds would have to submit his life to a degree of discovery a man with his baggage doesn't want to undergo.

An even bigger waste of time, it would seem to me, would be Vaughn's lawsuit against Imus, who never said her name on air, never identified her in any way in his mean and stupid remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team back in April. Nobody outside the Rutgers campus even knows Vaughn played for the team unless she tells them. You can't imagine this would have any real traction in court, unless Judge Al Sharpton was presiding.

But Vick is another story, a serious and cautionary story. Someone with direct knowledge of U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who is presiding over the Vick case, told me last night he's known as "Hang 'em High Hudson." The mandatory federal sentencing guidelines wouldn't leave a whole lot of wiggle room, not that Hudson would use it anyway. Word is he doesn't do lenient. So you think Vick would want Hudson making the call? Probably not.

Apparently, Vick is at the point where he's trying to salvage any part of his playing career. Legal experts say he's almost certainly going to do jail time, and there's a strong suspicion he's going to do some NFL time on the sideline after that. I still feel Vick is going to play again. If Hornung played again after a suspension for gambling, why wouldn't Vick have the chance to play again, even if it's two or three years down the road?

Dogfighting is unquestionably more heinous than gambling. But gambling attaches itself to the sport in ways nothing else can.

Dogfighting doesn't raise suspicion about the integrity of pro football.

But manipulation goes directly to the heart of the integrity of any sport. It leads the consumer to wonder what's real and what's an exhibition. It's why the NBA powers go crazy when the word "conspiracy" is mentioned, even in jest.

In that context, what Donaghy is admitting to is a far bigger threat to sport than what Vick appears to have done, sick as it is. But suppose the feds have more on Vick than dogfighting? The charges being leveled at Vick, and the whispers of the federal government holding more in reserve, really do lead to the question of whether Vick will ever be able to resume his football career.

Vick would be the first in-his-prime star athlete to have his career interrupted by jail time since Mike Tyson went to the big house in 1992 following his rape conviction.

Donaghy simply awaits sentencing, and the NBA holds its breath that Donaghy isn't symptomatic of something larger and uglier. It's hard to tell the sinners and their lawyers without a scorecard.

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