The multi-billion dollar spectator sports business in America owes its profits chiefly to a pair of ideas embedded in the hearts of every fan. The first holds that the outcome of the game matters. The second stipulates that the games are fairly played and honestly won.
The first is an illusion, as every straight thinking adult surely knows. Nothing hanging on the outcome of a game matches the gravity of life and death, public health or the dissemination of knowledge.
Some will reply that the money generated in cities where folks congregate for big games shows that outcomes matter from an economic standpoint, but that's circular. The economic impact generated by sporting events rests on broad acceptance that outcomes matter and not the other way around, for only those who swallow the illusion will spend thusly.
The illusion is not sufficient, though, to legitimize spectator sports. Indeed, the illusion dies on common knowledge that the games aren't on the up and up. When fans think games are fixed, they might still be enatertained but they won't believe they're entertained by athletic competition.
If professional wrestling has been damaged not one bit since conceding in the past couple decades that it's really an entertainment promotion, it's because only children believed the outcomes weren't predetermined anyway. Outcomes matter much less to wrestling fans than the stories told through character development and feud scripting. Pro wrestlers are consummate actors, as are the crooked or incompetent referees who keep the stories moving.
No one believes baseball games are fixed, not even when everyone believes umpires are blind, players bloat themselves with performance enhancing drugs and the commissioner's office does too little about it. No one believes pro football games are fixed, not even when the NFL entrusts its widely viewed contests to part-time referees who might be susceptible to the blandishments of well-funded gamblers. No one believes college football and basketball games are fixed, not even when the players are unpaid, epidemic gambling has seized college campuses across the country and point-shaving scandals occasionally populate the news.
Only in the NBA do we hear and suspect so often that the league office would prefer certain outcomes for their television ratings. In no other sport do the actors rail against their referees so much as in the NBA. (As Shaquille O'Neal once said, NBA stands for Nothing But Actors.) In no other spectator sport do well-practiced, professional referees blatantly and so often miss high-profile calls to the favor of the league's suspected preferences. And in no other spectator sport can a mouthy owner's complaints conceivably cost his team a game.
That's what you thought before you turned on the World Cup, where referees apparently detest the idea that players should decide games. The United States team played with so little evident conviction that it might not have advanced even with favorable officiating. But that doesn't excuse the questionable calls that forced the Americans to play half of their 1-1 draw with Italy two men short, then gave Ghana a game-deciding penalty kick to eliminate the Americans.
Officiating incompetence turned up in several World Cup games. Soccer officiating now is under siege worldwide after a scandal involving referees and game fixing surfaced this summer in the top Italian league.
A greater number of American sports fans witnessed the latest escapades in the NBA, where the Dallas Mavericks might have suffered for owner Mark Cuban's incessant ranting about the referees. The biggest upset in last week's NBA Finals wasn't that the Miami Heat beat the Mavericks, but that the series ended after only six games when a seventh would have cooked up a revenue bonanza.
One can't help thinking the Mavericks must have played with special incompetence to lose Game 6 at home.
And the Mavericks did play with special incompetence in the last four games. Leading by 13 into the fourth quarter with a chance to take a 3-0 lead, the Mavs folded, then lost the next three games, routinely blowing double-digit leads as they neglected to drive and reverted to jump shots.
But a number of calls at the end of Game 5 — including a missed backcourt violation, a phantom foul and a bizarre ruling on a time out — all went against Dallas and put Miami into a 3-2 lead. Following the game, according to a Miami newspaper report denied both by Cuban and NBA Commissioner David Stern, Cuban was supposed to have cussed out Stern, accusing the NBA of a fix.
With 26.2 seconds left in Game 6, Miami's Dwayne Wade drove left, collided with Dirk Nowitzki and won a controversial blocking call. After Wade made both free throws, the Heat held a three-point lead and took the title.
The story of this NBA title might stick to Wade's emergence or championship vindication for O'Neal and head coach Pat Riley, who no longer have to listen to various stories that they couldn't have won titles in Los Angeles without Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson. But the NBA simply can't keep the discussion away from the league office.
As the conspiracy theories have it, the league wanted Dallas in the finals for the television ratings, but it was more or less understood that Cuban's antics — for which he's been fined $1.69 million in seven years of team ownership — probably wouldn't have made him the most popular champion. So the calls went accordingly.
Probably it's a bunch of garbage. The NBA plays a very tough game to officiate. The real problem is that the central office's preference would even be discussed.
For all the young stars who are making the NBA a pleasure, the league still can't keep the conspiracy theorists quiet. Until the NBA can put an end to that kind of talk, it will remain a cut below MLB and the NFL and a cut above pro wrestling.