A Step Forward Or A Step Backwards?

By John Canzano
Updated: July 9, 2008

OREGON — Pope Benedict XVI must have been busy. Nelson Mandela must have turned down the job. And Jimmy Carter probably had other things to do.

The NBA has a credibility crisis, and the league hired Maj. Gen. Ronald L. Johnson last week to solve it. The two-star general recently retired from active duty as deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He’ll now oversee hiring, training, assigning, evaluation and analysis of NBA officials. And so today, if we’re not all wondering what this guy knows about basketball, we’re at least thinking, “Where were the four-star generals?”

The league solved exactly one-half of its problem last week by acknowledging a credibility issue. But the league didn’t address the core issue: rank, and whether the man charged with cleaning up the league’s officiating, a man who is well versed in the importance of the chain of command, will answer to commissioner David Stern or be allowed to act independently.

Because as long as the NBA — read, Stern himself — is still in charge of its officials, what’s really changed?

Stern was the commander in chief when official Tim Donaghy fixed games and went undetected for years. Stern was in charge during the controversial 2002 Western Conference Finals, which Donaghy and others, including consumer advocate Ralph Nader, assert need closer examination.

Stern has refused to grant transparency when it comes to postgame officiating reports, even post-Donaghy. He’s refused to open the league’s postseason official evaluations, even as he promised to be more forthcoming.

In fact, all Stern has done post-allegations is act indignant, defiant and controlling. All that has cast doubt on the league. Last week, however, Stern offered us a two-star general as proof things have really changed.

The NBA should be applauded for acknowledging that it has a problem. It should be commended for trying to find a credible person to put in charge of solving it. In Maj. Gen. Johnson we trust, yes? (Except, under his watch, the Corps of Engineers had issues with cost overruns in Iraq and improper facility designs at border posts.)

But until we learn whether the major general will have total control, until we see a change in the way officials call games, until postgame reports are made public, we can’t say for sure that the NBA solved anything.

Instead, this hire feels suspiciously manipulative. As if the league measured its favorability ratings and sifted through the most credible humans on the planet until it found one the public would trust.

But only because it absolutely had to do something. It feels a little like baseball’s 1919 Black Sox scandal and the subsequent appointment of Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the game’s first commissioner.

What we have here is a scandal, a game that realizes it’s in trouble in the court of public perception and then a reaction that is aimed more at sustaining public confidence than at solving anything substantive.

Except instead of starring “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, this scandal stars the decidedly less-sympathetic Donaghy, who is facing 33 months in prison. And Stern, who was on the job when all this unfolded, refuses to indict himself in any way.

It’s not lost here that the league turned to the military to solve its problem. It’s the safest move this side of clergy, saint or diplomat. And while a two-star general won’t take guff from his underlings, everyone knows that the general will understand rank, and in the NBA offices, nobody outranks Stern.

That’s still the problem, isn’t it?