Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Eli's Coming.

from Sports Night:

Dan Rydell: Eli's Coming.
Casey McCall: Eli?
Dan Rydell: From the Three Dog Night song.
Casey McCall: Yes?
Dan Rydell: Eli is something bad, a darkness.
Casey McCall: "Eli's coming. Hide your heart, girl." Eli is a inveterate womanizer. I think you're getting the song wrong.
Dan Rydell: I know I'm getting the song wrong. But, when I first heard it, that's what I thought it meant. Things stick with you that way.

Everything about this seems wrong.

When the news first hit, I was stunned. I couldn't get my head around it. I immediately wanted to get something up on HP, a reaction piece, a joke, something. But I couldn't. Because I couldn't get my brain to process it in any way that had any meaning. I decided I needed to wait on it, to feel through it, to not react. Don't get me wrong, there have been some great takes on it. And tomorrow, there's sure to be a bevy of other fine responses on both sides of the aisle, both dismissing Donaghy as a felon trying to get his sentence reduced (which he is), and calling for the league to come out and address this situation with the respect he deserves (which they should). My immediate reaction is outrage. That's just how I'm wired. Bear in mind that the Kings-Lakers 2002 series is the one that's stuck out in my mind above all others as the most blatant superstar-preferential series I've ever seen. It's the start and end of every argument I have for the league taking action to protect it's biggest market. The me that existed before I started writing this contraption would have been giddy over this. Excited, at the very least, for such a profound set of news, for validation of such a conspiracy.

But now, I find none of this satisfying. I don't even find it exciting. I'm just filled with dread for the coming days, and with sadness for a sport that had a bad rap to begin with. This feeling isn't born out of cynicism or bitterness, nor is it tempered with any sense of superiority. I feel the exact same way about both sides of the aisle. Both sides are going to have really good arguments, driven by passion and engineered with convincing opinions. And we'll never devise which one is right.

Those that decry conspiracies and the existence of any plan formulated by the NBA in support of its large markets will rely on the fact that at the heart of this, Tim Donaghy is trying to save his own ass. He's already been caught, pled guilty, and been convicted. It's all over but the crying. Or singing, in this case. He's not trying to right his wrongs, nor is he attempting anything noble. He's just trying to spend less time in prison. An understandable motive, but one that is demonstrative of the deceptive character he's already exhibited. They'll speak to the fact that a conspiracy is implausible at best, nigh impossible in the pragmatic sense at worst. That a conspiracy would necessitate such a vast range of deception orchestrated by so many that it's laughable to suggest it would even be attempted. And they'll speak to the same things we always lean on, the same things I myself have come to stand behind. That foul differentials are most often created by one team being more aggressive than the other. These reasons, among countless others that will be presented by both pundits and the league, will present a convincing argument that Donaghy's claims are false, and that there's been no manipulation.

And yet.

The other side will point to this year's Finals. To the fact that's been beaten into our skulls over the last week, that the Lakers and Celtics have dominated the NBA finals. There will be discussion of everything from Game 2 of this year's finals, to the Brent Barry/Derek Fisher non-foul in the conference finals, to the suspensions of last year's Spurs-Suns' series, and countless other incidents of questionable officiating. Including, of course, Lakers-Kings 2002. And that evidence is no less questionable in my mind. Just because you can laugh something off, doesn't mean there's a punchline. The seemingly arbitrary nature of officiating and the subjective judgment it requires will certainly be called into question. And finally, the most damning evidence, the league's lack of transparency in the year since the charges against Donaghy were first filed will surely come to light. If the league has no such policy, and engages in no such activity, why haven't we heard about this before? Why hasn't there been more discussion of the issues? Why have we heard nothing about it, and instead have heard only "Kevin Garnett to the Celtics!" and "Kobe and the Lakers are back!"?

It's at this point I came to an unfortunate conclusion. Tim Donaghy could be telling the truth. He could be 100% honest about every indiscretion in officiating, about every fixed series, about every non-foul. And we'll never know. And conversely, Tim Donaghy could be a lying scumbag trying to bring down his former employer with plausible lies and media-sexy stories. And we'll never know. This only confirms something I've come to know more and more. People have their opinions, and they are iron clad. And more often than not, the facts are merely accessories to fit around those opinions, and the ones that don't suit them? They simply leave on the shelf. Then they tell you, oh, sure, there are these things on the shelf, but look! Look what's on my wrist! there is no "other side." There's only your side, and foolish cynicism/naivete.

So in the coming days, as this story unfolds and we tear apart every foul and non-foul in 2002, as we start to examine how we look at officiating in general, and as we question just how much faith we have in the league to provide us with an honest product, remember, there won't be anything more than there is now. Stern still runs the league that we love, still writes the check, and still controls the story. And the media will still look to poke daggers at the edges and insinuate the wildest possible conclusion. Because it sells.

The only real result of all this is more dark clouds on the horizon over a sport that we love, that we constantly struggle to explain and defend. The only consequences are a deepening of a divide between those that think the league protects its stars and pulls strings to make the most money, and those that think that there was only one shooter in Dallas. The answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle, but we'll never know. Because this isn't about truth, and it isn't about honesty, and it isn't about the integrity of the game. It's about how much time some dude spends in prison, and about dollar bills earned from bad Denali commercials. And that may be the saddest part of all.

Either way, the darkness is here, and we have to deal with it. Eli's coming.

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