The Word From Above

On the first true day of fall here in New England, the sun burned high and bright amid thousands of swollen grey and white clouds, like fat little drops of half-mixed paint splashed across the sky. It was the type of day where you saw wide eyed people passing by, taking deep, satisfying breaths and exclaiming the virtues of "good fall air." Where the temperature dropped fifteen degrees from sunshine to shade and the wind pulled your clothes tight to your body as you walked.

Autumn really is the best season in this part of the country. Unfortunately, I spent the better part of the day immersed in my employ, locked away in my office with more work than time on my hands. Despite the mountain of case files on my desk, I was able to step out a few times to take in the beauty, and to pathetically flirt with an ongoing daydream, where I cancel the rest of my day and run off to play 18 holes, slowly emptying the bourbon from my flask as I go. 

I have seen a hundred perfect days like this one, and spent nearly as many running the painted fields and blacktops of city parks. On a day like today, a headwind wind will stand you up if you don't keep low, and the gusts can push your jump shot 6-8 inches to the right or the left. Perhaps it was the thousands of pickup games played, or the fact that I was born in the city where basketball was invented, or that I work in the shadows of the Hall of Fame, but my mind was drawn to the current state of basketball, and the dark specter that haunts Dr. Naismith's creation.

I refer, of course, to the credibility crisis facing professional basketball. Conspiracy theorists and critics of the sport have delighted in the turmoil that has descended upon league officials and (some say) has threatened the integrity of the game. At the fore-front of the maelstrom is disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy, a man who couldn't control his gambling, and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for it.

For the legally curious, and in the interests of full disclosure, he plead guilty to two counts on August 15, 2008 in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. The first count was conspiracy (to engage in wire fraud). Not to get too technical about it, but it is important for the reader to remember that the crime here is not the wire fraud, but the conspiracy; in the most basic sense, someone is guilty of conspiracy when they make an agreement to engage in criminal activity (in this case wire fraud) with one or more other individuals, and take some step in furtherance of that agreement. The second count was for transmitting wagering information through interstate commerce. A conspiracy charge usually carries the heft of the sentencing in most criminal cases where a non-violent felony charge is alleged, as was the case with Mr. Donaghy. [The reader may contact me with any further questions on any specific aspect of the case if they so choose.]

On his way out/down, the former official took a few parting shots at the basketball establishment. His attorney (in what now seems like an overzealous case of defense through media manipulation) even went so far as to pronounce (on the courthouse steps, no less) that Donaghy's accusations about fixed games in the 2002 Western Conference Playoffs would soon be backed by irrefutable evidence. We were told that this was only the tip of the iceberg. In reply, the league, while swiftboating Donaghy with one hand, spoke sternly (pun intended) about the need for increased accountability and curtly announced that an investigation would commence forthwith.

Not surprisingly, the scope of this wholly internal investigation was never clearly defined by league Commissioner David Stern, nor were the specifics about what the investigators were looking for. Very little has happened since that announcement, and up until the investigation concluded this week, not a word was issued about the progress made. All we got in the interim was a statement about increased gambling (D.A.R.E. - style) education efforts for officials and new players. No one should be surprised.

I have always identified the NBA as the league most akin to our federal government in its reliance on the cooling effect of a pejorative press release. I suppose each of the major sports leagues uses this tactic to some extent, but there has been no greater example than the newest headlines issued from the Commissioner's office, coupled with the release of the findings of Stern's investigation. Much like our legislative and executive branches in a time of scandal, the wagons have been circled, and we the people have been provided with little more than a cryptic statement saying that no wrong-doing has been found.

When it comes to the Republic, I have my own thoughts on what we should all do, much like I am sure each reader does. I won't make the mistake of getting into that right now, but feel free to engage me on the subject when the opportunity presents itself; I am always interested to see something I might have overlooked or undervalued. Politics aside, the immediate focus should be on the actions of the NBA. No other league's officials (some may make a case for NFL referees) are facing an issue of fundamental public trust, and no other league has more to lose by playing politics as usual.

We have seen the disasterous results of such a propaganda campaign before. Major League Baseball was relied upon to police its players and regulate the use of narcotics and performance enhancing drugs for the better part of the past three decades. Whenever an official statement was issued by the league during that period, the message being advanced, one-hundred percent of the time, was that baseball did not have a problem. The majority of intelligent, logical fans suspected that something was amiss far before the commissioner's office shifted its position on drug testing and the banning of performance enhancing drugs, yet the league continued to deny. All MLB had to do was show transparency and investigate where cause for concern had been obvious. They chose their path of denial and we all saw how that worked out.

I'm tempted to lay immediate blame on the league and the commissioner for what has all the signs of a dog and pony show, but I can't help wonder why I am unable to just accept the report as issued and move on. Maybe nothing else really did happen. Is my generation so cynical about the government, the media, and the opposite political party that I am incapable of examining a report about nothing and taking it at face value? 'No violations were found to have occured.' Why can't I get past the thought that any internal investigation just can't be trusted?

I am a student of history, and like so many others, I have a difficult time letting go of some of it. From the physics magic of the Warren report, to the lies from Nixon to Clinton, to the daily fabrications of the Bush administration on just about everything (the buildup for war in Iraq, the status of the Environment, the need for a new energy policy, the soundness of the national economy, etc.), I don't think I need to dig too deep to find the cause for my mistrust. The trouble I am having is not that I'm confused about the root of this apprehension, but rather that I worry it will cloud my judgment when the truth is actually being offered.

My generation must be careful to walk the line between faith and mistrust, because simply put, people lie. Some will always believe in blind faith and some will always take a distrusting stance. I guess the important thing to remember is that it is no more healthy to mistrust everything you hear then it is to just drink the Kool-Aid, as some simple-minded pop-culture writers love to quib (what happened at Jonestown is no joke). Only the fearful rely on sarcasm and cynicism as their tools, for the rest of us, we must be mindful of the liars and use our reason to find the closest, best truth.  

I'm not sure I'm willing to drink with Mr. Stern just yet (unless some of the finer Kentucky products were being offered), but I'm not about to take a leap onto the slippery slope of unibomber-esque conspiracy theory either. It may be easy for some people to just shout at the television screen about the game being fixed, but I don't have the luxury of ignorance. My mind cannot leap from one possibility to another without some basic logic behind it. I must use reason. Even still...I can't help thinking that we'll never know exactly how many games were tainted by corrupt officials who won't get caught. I don't know what's worse, that David Stern doesn't care if his fans feel that way, or that I'm willing to accept that.



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