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Are the referees really getting worse every year?

Since the revelations that former NBA ref Tim Donaghy had connections to organized crime, and was betting on his own games, accusations of referee bias and outright corruption have reached fever pitch.

This incident was undoubtedly the most significant referee-related scandal ever seen in the NBA. However, there have been other serious events in the league's history that have called the integrity of the sport's officials into question.

What follows is a history of referee scandals in the NBA, going back to the very beginning.

1951 NBA & NCAA fixing scandal

In 1951, NBA referee Sol Levy was suspended for fixing the outcome of six games in the season prior. Precious few details remain about this incident, but it is widely believed that Levy was eventually found dead, the victim of multiple gunshot wounds. It is thought that the former referee was murdered for failing to uphold his side of the deal, despite having fixed matches. Frank S. Hogan, New York District Attorney, stated that Levy did not "come through" for the fixers in at least three further NBA games.

The Brooklyn resident took a total of $3000 in bribes, and had links to Salvatore T. Sollazzo, who was eventually sentenced to 16 years in New York state prison for fixing college basketball matches in the same year. Levy himself was sentenced to three years in prison on a misdemeanor charge, which he served before his untimely death.

The Sollazzo scandal almost killed college basketball before it had even started, and to this day is one of the biggest examples of fixing in US sporting history. Scared straight by the near-collapse of NCAA basketball, the NBA knew that tougher protections had to be put in place against match-fixing. Referees were thoroughly vetted for links to organized crime, and the law was amended to apply tougher penalties on referees who were involved in fixing. From this point on, any offenses by referees would result in a felony charge.

Dubious calls

After the Levy incident, NBA referees were able to mostly avoid the spotlight in the decades that followed. Although bad calls did happen on occasion, the tide was yet to turn against the referees, and fans understood that they were human - and would therefore make mistakes on occasion.

The most significant refereeing mistake in the period prior to the 1990s was the "Phantom Foul" by Bill Laimbeer on Abdul-Jabbar in game 6 of the 1988 finals. Kareem went for a hook shot which missed, but a foul was called against Laimbeer, who is subsequently fouled out of the game. If this foul had not been called, the Pistons would have won the match. Instead, the Lakers won the game, before clinching the title in game seven.

This call wasn't completely cut-and-dry - Lakers fans claim that Kareem was bumped. But their then-coach Pat Riley admitted in 1993 that it was a "phantom foul". In the decade before the 2000s, referees' decisions were called into question on a fairly regular basis. However, in general, these criticisms did not extend into accusations of corruption or bias. Players, fans, and coaches would not become vocal about referee performance until the Tim Donaghy scandal rocked the sport.

Tax fraud

45 NBA referees were revealed to have been implicated in an IRS investigation in 1994, for allegedly failing to declare fringe benefits they accrued as a part of their income. At the time, the NBA only employed 54 referees, and having such a large proportion of its officials the subject of a dedicated IRS investigation was a massive shock to the integrity of the sport. Although this incident did not directly affect the result of any actual matches, it called into question the professionalism of the officials and the NBA itself.

The IRS alleged that the 45 individuals were failing to use their entire travel allowance, and retaining the difference without declaring it as income. At the time, the NBA would reimburse the officials for first-class airline tickets as necessary for them to travel to matches and referee conferences and workshops. Most referees did not use the full allowance, but still claimed the full value of first-class travel, without declaring the difference for tax purposes.

43 of the 45 referees chose to accept a plea bargain, and those that wanted to remain as referees were able to keep their jobs. Steve Javie plead not guilty, and was eventually acquitted. Ken Mauer was the only other referee who took the case to trial, but was found guilty. He served five months house arrest, and completed community service before eventually being rehired as an NBA referee.

Tim Donaghy betting scandal

In 2007, it was reported that the FBI was investigating a serving NBA referee for betting on games in which he had officiated. In July, the FBI confirmed the story, and named the official as Tim Donaghy. The then-40-year-old later plead guilty to two felony counts of conspiracy, before being sentenced to 15 months in prison.

The ramifications of this finding went far beyond Donaghy and the two games he admitted to fixing. In June 2008, he released a statement claiming, without stating explicitly, that there was widespread corruption in the ranks of the NBA's officiating teams. But Donaghy's claims went further - he stated that referees were pressured into favoring certain teams in order to promote the commercial interests of the NBA. Donaghy said that in one instance, the referees had biased a team because "it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series".

This statement is widely believed to be alluding to the 2002 Western Conference finals series, especially game 6. The Kings went into game 6 up 3-2 against the Lakers, but the NBA allegedly wanted to ensure that the series lasted as long as possible. The game was riddled with controversial calls - most notably, Mike Bibby was struck in the face by Kobe Bryant in full view of a referee, denying them the chance to score, but no foul was called. Sacramento went on to lose the series.

Ongoing accusations of bias

The main consequence of the Donaghy scandal on the NBA was greater scrutiny being placed on the league's referees. From this point on, officials were seen as fair game for criticism, from both players and coaches, because it had been proven that at least one referee, and potentially many more, had accepted bribes in the recent past. This is despite the fact that such criticism results in an automatic fine.

In fact, more than 100 fines have been issued for criticizing referees since the 94/95 season. However, only 4 of these fines were issued in the period from 94-97. By contrast, 18 fines for this offense were handed out between 2015 and 2017.

In recent years, players have started to claim that certain referees hold vendettas against them personally. Current Warriors forward Draymond Green has said as such explicitly, and in one instance appeared to compare current referee Mark Kogut to Tim Donaghy on social media after Golden State lost to the Timberwolves in March 2019.

Article contributed by Matt - writer at Lift Your Game