John Smallwood: NBA surviving Donaghy scandal

I AM STILL waiting for the Doomsday Countdown to reach zero for the National Basketball Association.

I've read the stories of how the illegal scheme involving former referee Tim Donaghy, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison yesterday for his role in betting on NBA games, was a blow to the integrity of the game that the league would struggle to overcome.

I saw how conspiracy theorists jumped out of the woodwork to proclaim that the Donaghy case proved their long-standing beliefs that NBA games were always fixed to produce the best outcomes for the financial benefit of the league.

I've listened to people say the NBA would never recover from this.

Tick, tick, tick - these have been the longest final moments to destruction in history.

The truth is that despite the talking and speculation, the NBA has suffered no significant injury despite being involved in one of the most public gambling scandals in professional sports history.

Certainly, the NBA has taken some embarrassing hits.

The league spent millions of dollars conducting internal investigations, revising policy and developing solutions to help reassure public trust.

Still, outside of bad publicity, what has been the damage?

In reality, the long recovery process many said the NBA was going to have to go through lasted until the start of the 2007-08 season.

I just didn't see the effect in the critical areas that would indicate that a multibillion-dollar sports league was in trouble.

The NBA set an all-time attendance record by averaging 17,757 fans per game during the 2006-07 season.

A plunge in attendance would have been the first indicator of the Donaghy scandal damaging the league.

While it is true that NBA overall average attendance dropped last season, it only fell 4.5 percent to 17,141 per game.

Maybe Donaghy had something to do with that, but it could be just as easily explained as people watching their dollar more closely because of a sagging economy.

Even with Donaghy claiming during the 2008 NBA Finals that he knew of NBA games that had been willfully manipulated to create favorable scenarios for the league and television broadcast partners, the ratings for the 2008 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers were a 9.3 - the highest since the 2004 Finals.

Celtics against the Lakers?

If conspiracy ruled the day, the first Finals matchup between the league's marquee franchises since 1987 would have raised so many red flags that the ratings should have been the lowest ever.

Much like the steroid issue in Major League Baseball, NBA fans don't seem inclined to gripe about the scandal at the expense of enjoying the product.

Obviously, no professional sports league wants to be associated with scandal, especially one involving gambling.

But the NBA gets credit for handling things the correct way.

Commissioner David Stern stepped immediately to the forefront to address the issue. He took his share of lumps, but he also showed the public that the NBA considered this issue of utmost importance.

By fully cooperating with federal investigators, by releasing information to the public - even the embarrassing stuff - the NBA showed it was not going to attempt to orchestrate a cover-up. The NBA hired former federal prosecutor Larry Pedowitz to do an internal investigation of its officiating program right after the Donaghy scandal broke.

At the beginning of July, the league announced it hired a recently retired two-star general to the position of senior vice president for referee operations - indicating that the league recognizes the officiating wing has to be separated from the functions of basketball operations.

From the start, the NBA has responded with actions, not just words, to reassure the public that its game is the product of the integrity of pure competition.

That's all you can do in a case like this - step forward and hope that the majority of your fans accept what you are saying.

"We anticipate that the judge's sentencing decision, together with the changes we have made to our referee operations staff, will enable us to continue with the improvements we are making to our anti-gambling rules, policies and procedures,'' Stern said in a statement.

Judging by the response to the NBA during the 2007-08 season, most fans have not lost faith in the product.

The NBA knows it must remain vigilant and transparent in its efforts to retain public trust. A new betting scandal wouldn't be so easy to overcome. *

Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com.

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