NBA scandal prompts usual media hand-wringing about Vegas |

NBA scandal prompts usual media hand-wringing about Vegas

by John L. Smith

Veteran NBA referee Tim Donaghy probably has a closet full of striped shirts. Now it appears he’ll be getting pants to match. News that the NBA official was implicated in a cheating scheme makes me cringe, but not for the usual reasons.

Not because it’s surprising to learn a professional sports referee is susceptible to corruption. It’s no shock. In leagues where players and coaches make millions, officials are arguably the most vulnerable – especially if they have a heavy gambling Jones.

Not because it’s mortifying for the league’s image-conscious commissioner to admit one of his referees has been slow dancing with illegal bookies and aspiring knuckle-draggers, although it is. Surely Commissioner David Stern will have something glib to say on this matter.

The Donaghy news made me cringe for this reason: Whenever a betting scandal breaks, hand-wringing from the national media about Nevada’s legalized sports book industry soon follows. It never fails.

In this case, it took about five seconds for some writer to reach the conclusion that Las Vegas shouldn’t have an NBA franchise because an NBA referee has gambled.

Hello, Logic-Impaired Hot Line?

One example comes from Newsday’s Ken Berger, who instructed the NBA commissioner: “Here is the first thing Stern must do: Wipe Las Vegas off the NBA map for good.”

Oh, brother.

Let’s see: A 13-year NBA referee from suburban Philadelphia reportedly winds up in criminal concert with illegal bookmakers and nefarious characters with supposed New Jersey and Philadelphia mob connections. And Las Vegas is the culprit.

Granted, there are several compelling reasons to reject Las Vegas as an NBA franchise city. Topping the list is the size of our metropolitan media market and regional population. Whether the super-rich casino industry will throw its support behind a franchise is another important question. And whether locals with myriad entertainment options, a sorry record of fan loyalty, and no historical tolerance for losing will consistently support a professional sports team are legitimate issues.

But legalized sports betting in Nevada is not. Nor does it make sense to vilify Las Vegas because it’s known as a fun destination for wealthy NBA players and a popular place for exhibition games.

Hate to break the news to the hand-wringers, but gambling is an everyday part of American life. Its down sides are dark, dramatic and well documented, but casino gambling and betting on sports are part of the culture.

The difference between Las Vegas and elsewhere is sports betting is legal here. And regulated. And watched by sports book directors whose careers hang on their ability to maintain profitability and track odd movements in the betting line. The last thing a Strip sports book operation wants is to lose a bundle on a fixed game.

Now you can bet everyone associated with the business is scrutinizing the games Donaghy officiated to see if there were strange movements of money or odd activity on the court. It’s already been reported that Donaghy called the most technical fouls in the league and was second in total fouls called.

“During the season, I don’t remember any unusual movement,” Wynn Las Vegas sports book director John Avello said. Like others in his industry, Avello is monitoring developments.

One of the areas that law enforcement officials are focusing on is the movement in the betting lines, both regionally and at Caribbean sports books. Much has been made in early media reports about the movement in several games that Donaghy refereed, but one local sports book veteran observed, “Line movement happens all the time. It’s not unusual for the line to move a full point.”

If Donaghy cooperates fully, there will be no doubt which games he attempted to influence.

Rather than keep the NBA from besmirching its reputation by holding hands with Las Vegas, it makes more sense to punish Donaghy and keep closer tabs on the referees.

On second thought, maybe they should pull the franchises from New Jersey and Philadelphia, where Donaghy supposedly had contact with illegal bookmakers.

Why stop there?

New York, Chicago, and Cleveland are hotbeds of illegal bookmaking activity. Sorry, Knicks, Bulls, and Cavaliers, but your days are numbered.

But what am I thinking?

That argument makes as much sense as punishing Las Vegas because a striped mope broke the law 2,000 miles from the Strip.

• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.