Major Scandals in Sports
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 25, 2007

THIS IS A major crisis time for American professional sports with an NBA referee investigated for betting on and perhaps fixing the outcome, of games and the NFL facing a scandal of epic proportions surrounding the dogfighting on Michael Vick’s former property in Virginia.

Yet, what do you want to bet that the No. 1 topic for sports columnists around the country will be Barry Bonds and steroids? Priorities, after all.

Though what’s happened in the Vick case is the most horrific, the NBA case carries the biggest implications for all sports. Officials may be reviled for having tiny strike zones or calling ticky-tack fouls but nobody ever thinks they might be consciously affecting a game result.

Yet, that is the accusation leveled at referee Tim Donaghy, that he not only bet on games but may have influenced the outcome – or, at least, the over/under number – by calling an excessive number of fouls.

College basketball has had its point-shaving scandals in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but those strictly involved players. It was ridiculously easy for players to fix games because it is quite common for even the best players to have cold nights – I once saw Larry Bird for 0-for-9 in a game in Oakland – so nobody thought twice about missed shots, until everything was revealed in later investigations.

Now, the risk of players ever being involved like that again is probably minimal because of the money in the pro game. Even in college, though they’re not yet getting paid the big money, the top players can envision multi-million contracts. Who would risk losing that opportunity?

Pete Newell once told me another reason the college game would stay pure: The sports books in Las Vegas and Reno would quickly note a big change in betting patterns and take a game off the boards, assuming it would be fixed. So, the big payoff that gamblers trying to fix a game would be seeking wouldn’t be there.

If the accusations against Donaghy are accurate, what he was doing was more subtle, rigging the over/under by calling more fouls. That’s the easiest way to manipulate the final score because more fouls equals more free throws which usually means more points. It’s also more difficult to spot an official’s wrong-doing if the fouls aren’t called primarily on one team. An examination of the patterns in Donaghe’s games showed a higher number of foul calls, but before this investigation started, Donaghe was regarded as one of the top referees in the game and Bookie.Nation didn’t spot anything, either. It was an FBI investigation that uncovered Donaghe’s alleged role.

The NBA’s stuffed-shirt commissioner, David Stern, called a press conference yesterday to claim that Donaghe’s case is an isolated one. That’s certainly what Stern hopes, but he’s not speaking from knowledge. If there is more than one referee involved – I don’t believe any players are, for the economic reasons cited above – it will be a real nightmare for the league, which already has headaches with problem players, including the Warriors’ Stephen Jackson.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to deal with problem players, too, when he took over for Paul Tagliabue, and he has done well with his new code of conduct policy. With the support of NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw, who as a Hall of Fame player himself hates the image players were getting, Goodell has suspended Pacman Jones for a year and Tank Johnson for half a season (Johnson was later released by the Chicago Bears).

If anything, the Vick case could be worse. Multiple dog carcasses were discovered by Federal investigators on Vick’s former property near Richmond, Va., and there have been allegations that the dogs were tortured before being killed.

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank was so repulsed when he read the allegations in a 17-page indictment that he announced at a news conference that he wanted Vick suspended for the first four games.

Goodell suggested a compromise, that Vick be barred from training camp pending an investigation. If the case against Vick is proved, his NFL career is over. He can’t throw passes from a jail cell.

For months, sports columnist have been asking baseball commissioner Bud Selig if he would be at the games when Bonds ties and then passes Hank Aaron’s career home run record. In fact, Selig answered the question by showing up this week at AT&T Park.

And, no doubt, both Stern and Goodell are saying to themselves: I wish that were my biggest problem.

BIG UNIT: Randy Johnson’s career appears to be over, and he will leave the game with a record that will certainly land him in the baseball Hall of Fame and perhaps the worst sports nickname ever.

Big Unit? What is he, a refrigerator?

SWITCH-HITTING: The idea of switch-hitting is appealing to some hitters because they think it will keep them in the lineup instead of being platooned.

Well, sometimes. The A’s have had the two extremes: Nick Swisher and Bobby Kielty. Swisher is roughly equal from both sides, hitting for a higher percentage from the right side but with more power from the left side. Kielty, though, is a good hitter from the right side, a .297 career average, but ineffective from the left side. As a result, he’s been platooned, anyway, used mostly against left-handed pitching.

One of the disadvantages to switching is that a hitter gets only half of his usual batting practice from each side. There are switch-hitters who should stick to one side. J. T. Snow was an example of that, and he eventually quit hitting from his weak side, the right side. Kielty should have quit trying to hit left-handed years ago. He’s a good defensive outfielder and might have hit over .300 if he’d concentrated on hitting right-handed. Instead, he’s become superflous. The A’s designated him for assignment and have been trying to trade him, with no takers as of this morning.


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