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SPORTS: I'm hanging onto my belief in honest outcomes

June 23, 2008

Other than the occasional NASCAR race and, notably, professional wrestling, I choose not to believe in orchestrated outcomes and conspiracy theories when it comes to sports.

OK, I'm just kidding about NASCAR. Well, sort of.

Anyway, I defended that belief even as I was being besieged by Pacers fans- back when the Pacers were the local team of choice and favor-who were convinced NBA Commissioner David Stern and his minions were preventing our small-market darlings from reaching the NBA Finals in favor of the ratings-grabbing New York Knicks and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.

Even when I watched NBA referee Dick Bavetta-also known as "Knick" Bavetta-embrace courtside-sitting Knicks fans before an Eastern Conference finals playoff game in Madison Square Garden, then proceed to make mystifying calls and non-calls that went against the Pacers, I refused to believe Bavetta's actions were purposeful or somehow the result of a league directive.

Officials miss calls. They miss them in meaningless preseason games, and they miss them in pressure-packed playoff games.

And Bavetta in particular, by most accounts, is one of the NBA's highest-rated veteran officials.

My belief then-and now-is if a team plays well enough, it takes officiating out of the game. I also believe that, over the course of a season or playoff run, bad calls even out with the good.

One other thing: It's not coincidence that bad things happen to bad teams.

Then again, it's not coincidence that good things happen to great players. From years of observation, I'm convinced that the socalled Jordan Rules were fact, not fiction, and as great as his Airness was, his talent was aided and abetted by officials who were as mesmerized by his talents as Joe Fan sitting in the upper deck.

Yet the question is: Does such favoritism exist by league edict, or is it that stardom earns certain levels of respect from officials?

At the other end of the spectrum, I would present as Exhibit A a poor sap such as the Pacers' David Harrison. Yes, Harrison is a goof, a teenager residing in a man's body. But with all the objectivity I can muster, I can't recall a player more routinely denied the benefit of the officials' doubt than Harrison.

But I digress.

The backdrop to all of this, of course, are the allegations coming forth from the disgraced referee, Tim Donaghy, that the NBA employs "company men" among its officials who are committed to whistling to the league's tune. Donaghy cited the specific example of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in 2002 in which small-market Sacramento was vying to oust the big-market L.A. Lakers, only to succumb to an onslaught of fouls and free throws, lose the game and ultimately the series.

Well, the box score doesn't lie, even if the NBA says bad-apple Donaghy is slaying the truth in some attempt to save his own skin. The Lakers did win that game at the free throw line in the fourth quarter (when they shot 27 free throws). Sacramento fans are still convinced their team got jobbed.

Oh, and Dick Bavetta was one of the referees in that game.

The larger issue is this: The integrity of sports has never been more in question. From juiced baseballers to fixed tennis matches to Spygate to this simmering NBA story, is there any outcome that we can trust? Should we even bother to believe that this year's Tour de France winner is a legitimate champion, or simply ahead of the drug-testing curve? At what point during the upcoming Olympics will we hear the inevitable news of a positive test and stripped medals?

Geez, we've become so suspicious of the legitimacy of outcomes that even professional golfers are being asked to pee in the bottle.

But at least when it comes to officiating, golfers call their own fouls.

I guess I'll go with that.

A couple of weeks ago, I put in a blurb about the Legends of Sports dinner to benefit 92-year-old Lucious Newsom's work in the community providing food and shelter for the poor. An overflow crowd of more than 400 showed up at the University Place Conference Center at IUPUI this past Tuesday to hear former HUD Secretary and Congressman Jack Kemp, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Colts' Tony Dungy and Bill Polian praise Newsom.

Polian pronounced Newsom "a gentleman who is a gift to our community."

A gift that just keeps on giving of himself.

Oh, and more than $50,000 was raised.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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