NBA Ref Caught Betting: What’s the Big Deal?

It is well known that some referees get a bit too friendly with some of the players they officiate, but rarely does a story of this nature make it into the mainstream press.

On June 6th, 2019, a series of events unfolded that would shake the basketball world. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver revealed that two referees had been spotted gambling on games that they officiated. Referee Eric Blake and assistant referee Derrick Rowse had been placed on a league-led disciplinary committee for their actions. The next day, both officials responded to the allegations in a statement, admitting that they had placed bets on games but denying that it had any influence on their work as referees.

“I emphatically deny that I have ever intentionally used my position in the NBA to affect any outcome of games I officiated,” Blake said in the statement. “It is impossible to ref a game and be unbiased. Everyone deserves a second chance, and I hope the public will trust that I would never do anything to intentionally hurt or help a team.”

“I firmly believe that sports should be played and officiated with integrity, and regardless of my fate as a result of this situation, I hope the NBA can continue to trust me and the work that I’ve done over the years,” Rowse said. “I’ve always tried to be the best official I could be and never tried to affect any game’s result. I deeply regret my actions and hope to regain the trust of the NBA and my fans.”

The NBA’s decision to suspend Blake and Rowse was met with mixed reviews. Some people felt that the officials’ actions warranted a lengthy ban while others believed that less time should be served considering the severity of the allegations. There are also those who feel that the officials’ actions prove that they were biased against certain teams and players due to their own gambling habits.

What Is Gambling?

Although the specific situation involving the NBA and its referees may have been questionable, the fact that the league is taking action against its employees for gambling is entirely proper. Gambling is regarded as a vice by many people, including the Bible, and it is usually associated with evil or wrong-doing. However, the behavior is legal and has been accepted by society as a whole for a very long time.

Officiating employees in American sports leagues have been known to place wagers on games for many years, most notably in the NFL. In the early 1900s, there were even rumors that some referees had taken bribes in exchange for calls in their favor. Thanks to increased police surveillance and financial restrictions, gambling in sports has largely disappeared from the public’s eye, but it still goes on and has become commonplace among sports officials.

Due to their proximity to the action, basketball referees are often in the best position to witness and benefit from any shady dealings, especially since the ball is visible to the entire world. In 2014, a New York Times investigation found that referees are more likely to violate NBA rules regarding gambling than any other type of officiating crew. The following year, the paper reported that NBA referees accepted bribes in exchange for calls in specific situations. These reports were merely the tip of the iceberg, as it turns out. In the last decade, referee scandals involving illegal gambling have become commonplace, with more than a handful of officials being tossed from their positions every year.

Why Are Sports Officials Tossed From Their Positions So Often?

Although the NBA has no tolerance for corruption or misconduct of any kind, the fact that sports referees are regularly being fired for their actions is more evidence that something is seriously wrong in their department. Why do they keep getting caught? Perhaps it’s time for the NBA to reevaluate the way they do business and consider reducing the anonymity that referees and assistants have now gained in recent years. By law, the identities of NBA referees and assistants must be kept secret, which serves as an invitation for corruption.

There is no question that in the right situation, referees can be a valuable part of an organization. They bring a unique set of skills to the table that can be used to improve the product on the court, which is always good for the league. What is not good is allowing referees to develop close personal relationships with certain players, which then allows them to manipulate the outcome of games in favor of those athletes. In the eyes of the law, it is definitely a wrong for an NBA official to put themselves in a position where they could be potentially influenced by a wager, but what about the damage that they have already done to the game?

Scandals Amongst Refs In Many Other Leagues

The NBA is one of the last major American sports leagues to deal with gambling controversies, which dates back to the 1800s and particularly in the early 1900s, when several scandals involving referees and gamblers were perpetrated. These incidents gave rise to the establishment of statutes of limitations regarding gambling, preventing many of the offenders from being prosecuted, let alone penalized.

The most notorious of these incidents occurred in the 1914 NFL championship game, the “Pelham Bowl”. During the game, Chicago Bears’ quarterback Hugh McElhenney threw a touchdown pass to Red Grange, but referee Tommy Blake did not notice that the play had lasted longer than 5.34 seconds, the time that the play had actually lasted. As a result, Chicago was credited with the win, but numerous reports pointed to Blake as the villain in the whole affair, with many claiming that he had intentionally missed the play to help the hometown Bulldogs.

  • The NFL outlawed downing passes in the field of play in 1923, which prevented a lot of these types of controversies. Before this point, many games had been decided by questionable calls or no calls at all. This gave rise to the infamous “no-call” era, when games would often be decided by the favoritism or incompetence of the officials.
  • The NFL also instituted overtime in 1932, which was met with resistance from some owners, who felt that it would eliminate the flow of the game. In 1935, 9 of the 14 officials in the NFL championship game had ties to gamblers, and most of them were found to have influenced games in favor of teams with which they were associated. Many of the officials were suspended or fired.
  • In the years since then, the issue of integrity amongst sports officials has become one of the major talking points in American sports. Although there have been isolated incidents of collusion and wrongdoing in other leagues, none of these comparisons come close to matching the level of corruption that infested the sport during its early years. Since then, thanks to increased police surveillance and a better understanding of the rules, gambling in sports has largely disappeared from the public eye.