NBA Chief Does Damage Control

Stern Calls Claims a Referee Bet on Games the Worst Thing He's Faced as Commissioner

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern set out on what could prove to be an arduous damage-control campaign this morning as he publicly addressed allegations that a referee bet on games and provided information to others wagering on them.
NBA Commissioner David Stern
NBA Commissioner David Stern

Addressing reporters for the first time since the allegations about former NBA referee Tim Donaghy broke Friday, Mr. Stern -- despite being limited in what he could say due to an ongoing FBI investigation -- said the situation was the "worst" and "most serious" he had been involved in during his 23 years as commissioner.

Isolated case
He took great pains to point out that Mr. Donaghy's case was isolated and not part of a larger, systemic problem, and also that the NBA didn't know about the allegations until after the season ended in June.

"We think we have here a rogue, isolated criminal here," Mr. Stern said at a news conference. "I feel betrayed by what happened on behalf of the sport."

According to Mr. Stern, the NBA was notified by the FBI on June 20 that a referee was alleged to be gambling on games, and the two parties met a day later. Mr. Donaghy resigned July 9. Mr. Stern said he would have preferred to fire Mr. Donaghy but didn't want to negatively impact the investigation.

"Suffice to say, we would have liked to have terminated him earlier, but our understanding was the investigation would best be aided if we did not terminate Mr. Donaghy," Mr. Stern said.

Earlier warning
While the allegations were news to the NBA, the league had received an earlier warning about Mr. Donaghy's alleged gambling in 2005, when it was looking into an unrelated dispute between Mr. Donaghy and a neighbor that ended in court. During those proceedings, there were allegations Mr. Donaghy had bet in an Atlantic City casino.

Even though Atlantic City casinos cannot take sports bets, Mr. Stern said, NBA officials are prohibited from gambling of any kind, with the exception of off-season visits to horse-racing tracks. An investigation was unable to prove Mr. Donaghy had ever been in a casino, but the league punished him anyhow by pulling him out of the second round of the playoffs.

He later regained the playoff games -- including this season's hotly contested San Antonio-Phoenix series -- in part because he was considered one of the league's most accurate referees.

Restoring confidence
It isn't yet clear whether Mr. Donaghy bet on games, but it would be foolish to give an official who gambled in violation of league rules the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Stern said. He vowed to make whatever changes were necessary to restore confidence in NBA officiating.

"The obligation that every sports league has ... is to ensure that its games are decided on their merits," he said. "Virtually regardless of cost, we plan to regain that covenant with our fans."

Burson-Marsteller Managing Director Gary Koops, a veteran crisis-communications specialist who watched the press conference on TV, said Mr. Stern's performance this morning was a step toward that. "There were limits on what he could say, but he took every question," Mr. Koops said. "He was open and transparent but with a sense of seriousness that shows he understands that this threatens the integrity of the game."
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