And we certainly know how big money is at the center of everything in the world of professional (and big-time college) sports. We watch billion dollar stadiums being built, we pay a couple of hundred dollars to take our family to a ballgame and buy a hot dog, we pay for the premium sports channels on satellite TV.
So we’re jaded. We know many of the stars are spoiled brats and the owners are greedy pigs. Any illusion of innocence or wide-eyed appreciation for so many pro sports personalities was shattered a long time ago.
But through it all, and perhaps not even realizing it, we could count on one last, comforting belief: the officials never cheat.
Oh, they’d miss plenty of calls. From that poor American League umpire who blew the not-even-so-close play at first base that cost the St. Louis Cardinals in the post-season to the hapless NFL official who appeared to botch the pre-game coin toss, we’ve seen all kinds of mistakes made by the men in blue or striped shirts.
But we never, ever thought they cheated.
We yell at them, boo them, question their eyesight and/or their IQ, and sit in our ivory tower cheap seats with the perfect vantage point and wonder why anyone could possibly want to be a referee.
But not for a moment did we ever suspect that any of them could cheat.
A cheating sports official could get away with murder. More than controlling the outcome of a game, he could call just enough fouls or whistle few enough infractions to cover “the spread” or the “over/under.” And since no one can really get in their head, it’d be impossible to prove it.
Unless someone turns one of them in.
Evidently, that’s what happened to NBA official Tim Donaghy. News reports are suggesting that he was in so deep to the mob that he was betting -- and likely cheating -- on games he officiated.
No one knows as well as sports officials the deadly, career-ending consequences of betting on games. So if the allegations are true, Mr. Donaghy had to be living in constant fear for his life, not to mention the overwhelming dread of committing the unspeakable mortal sin in all of professional athletics. I suppose it’ll all be sorted out and eventually we’ll move on.
But this is not just a sports story. It’s a nagging reminder that absolutely nothing is safe from corruption anymore.
It’s a story that reflects our cynical, bitter world full of disappointment and contempt for decency.
I guess it’s possible that not even the referees are immune from the plummeting decline of values and goodness and integrity.
And that makes me incredibly sad.
Maybe the allegations against Tim Donaghy aren’t true. I hope not.
But like the innocent child who hears a dirty joke or sees an act of cruelty for the first time, the damage has been done.
The simplicity and beauty of an occupation free from corruption is gone forever.
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