Ralph Nader Cries Foul Against the NBA Six years ago, Ralph Nader complained to the NBA about referee problems. Now, as the NBA faces renewed scandals, Nader takes another look.

Ralph Nader Cries Foul Against the NBA

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Well, Ralph Nader is, indeed, many things, a consumer advocate, a muckraker and an Independent presidential candidate. He's also a huge sports fan. And as the Lakers and Celtics battle in out for the NBA Championships - upper hand to the Celtics - he's fired up about the sports referees. Earlier this week a former ref, Tim Donaghy, claimed that the league pressures referees to make calls that favor certain teams in order to force more playoff games and thus make the league more money. The NBA denies this.

There is plenty of cause to be skeptical about Donaghy's claims. He has pled guilty to taking bribes from gamblers and to betting on games. One of the games that Donaghy said was fixed took place in 2002. One of his pieces of evidence that he submitted to the judge was a letter that consumer and sports advocate, Ralph Nader, submitted to the NBA commissioner at the time. Ralph Nader joins me now. Hello, Mr. Nader.

Mr. RALPH NADER (2008 Independent Presidential Candidate): Good morning to you, Mike.

PESCA: So, I always knew that unsafe at any speed and your campaign to mandate seatbelts, that was about traveling, but here we are talking about a different kind of traveling and all the other calls. How long have you been a sports fan?

Mr. NADER: Oh, going back 1940, when I became a Yankees fan.

PESCA: What are your teams?

Mr. NADER: Pardon?

PESCA: What are your teams who you root for?

Mr. NADER: Oh, well, I always like to root for the home team. So it'd be the Washington Redskins, and - but I do like the Green Bay Packers, because they are owned by the community.

PESCA: Oh, OK. Have you protested the Redskins' name?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NADER: They're going to change their name, I think.

PESCA: Because of you.

Mr. NADER: No, no, no, no. It's just a matter of time.

PESCA: I didn't know that you had - I know you have an umbrella of organizations. And I did not know that one of them was this thing called the League of Fans, and it was under the League of Fans that you wrote this letter to the NBA commissioner six years ago now. Most of the thing that the League of Fans would argue about, or argue against, was public funding of sports stadiums. Why did that group get involved with NBA-officiating issues?

Mr. NADER: Because there's a serious issue of trust that the fans have to have when they watch a performance in an athletic arena or an athletic field. They have to feel that both the players and the officials are operating on the merits, and that if they don't perform, they are removed from the field, or in the case of the referees, reprimanded or asked to resign.

And that sixth game of the 2002 Western Conference in the NBA between the Lakers and Sacramento was probably the worst officiating that anybody can remember in the NBA. In the fourth quarter, there were 27 fouls called against the Sacramento Kings, and the Lakers were fouling the Kings and not having the fouls called. For example, Kobe Bryant, in the view of millions of people, elbowed in the face Mike Bibby, who fell to the floor bleeding and went to the sidelines. And there was no foul called on Kobe Bryant.

PESCA: Right. Now that sounds like great fodder for a sports column. But why was that an issue of public concern? I know you say that it's so the fans can think that the game is on the up and up. But are you saying the fix might have been in on that game?

Mr. NADER: I'm saying that my letter to David Stern was basically asking for him to investigate it. I spoke to him on the phone. He was cordial but imperious, because he runs a corporate dictatorship that prevents, contractually, any player or coach from speaking out. It's called an anti-disparagement provision.

That puts a huge responsibility on David Stern to maintain public confidence in the game, by reviewing either a matter of incompetence, gross incompetence, on the part of those referees in that game between the Lakers and Sacramento, or that there might have been some desire to curry favor with management by those referees and get a seventh game, which, of course, presents an appearance of conflict of interest.

And he never really investigated it. It was a whitewash. And fans are consumers. They pay money as consumers to see the game, to buy the products at the game. And they pay as taxpayers to subsidize these stadiums and arenas. And they deserve fair consumer-protection standards.

PESCA: I see, I see. It's very much in line with your longtime stance to give voice to the voiceless. In this case, the voiceless might be Vlade Divac, who was the Sacramento Kings' center. If he speaks out against it, he'll get fined. So you're going to speak out against it. But do you think - I mean, whenever the sports writers, like, you quoted Michael Wilbon, and usually they say, now, we're not saying the game was fixed. We're not alleging that at all. But there were some terrible calls. I know you weren't alleging that the game was fixed. But do you think it's possible or even likely?

Mr. NADER: Well, there doesn't have to be a word passed. If they've got referees that want to curry favor with their boss and get promoted and get to officiate more championship games, they can do it on their own. It's a very subjective thing, up to a point, very difficult for referees to referee. It's a tough job. They have to make lightning decisions. But the level of incompetence or worse deserved an investigation, and it wasn't conducted.

So, what I'm proposing first is the NBA get on with deciding instant replay. They've been delaying and delaying that decision. The NFL has instant replay. Number two, the anti-disparagement clauses should be suspended during the off season, so the players and the managers can speak out and tell the truth. Otherwise, anti-disparagement results in a 12-month cover-up, and that ought to be stopped.

And then third, there ought to be a nonpartisan commission that the NBA initiates with impeccable people to choose the referees. I mean, entire seasons can be decided in one minute by referees that have other agendas on their mind. So, while nobody can come to a conclusion as to what happened, other than gross incompetence on their part, in that Sacramento-Lakers game, they certainly can come to the conclusion that it should have been investigated. And any subsequent situations like this should be investigated with a public review and an explanation to the fans, so it doesn't happen again and again.

We're getting all kinds of emails into our website, voternader.org, and I think people feel that with all the serious things going around in their lives, that they deserve a sanctuary of trust called sports, where they can really trust what's going on and have a little escape, say, if you will, from problems in their lives where politicians are on the take and corporations committing crimes and fraud against them.

PESCA: So it's part of your longtime stance, even corporations should be open. There should be sunshine laws. We should be able to see the gears of machinery. But how did it make you feel emotionally to be included in this letter to the judge by a convicted - well, a guy who pled guilty to fixing, or helping to fix, NBA games?

Mr. NADER: Well, I mean, he didn't alter the letter. As long as the letter is the way I wrote it to Commissioner Stern, I have no problem with that. I mean, our country's history is filled with people who plead guilty to crimes and broaden the attention of the public and prosecutors to others who have committed similar crimes. I mean, you don't dismiss out of hand his charges, which were signed on by his lawyer, who's an officer of the court, especially when millions of fans saw what happened in that Sacramento Kings-Lakers game. You don't have to give him any creditability.

He basically has just raised the issue, once again, so we can deliberate it and redress it. I mean, the corporate dictatorship of professional sports exempted from the antitrust laws, full of secrecy, anti-disparagement clauses, unilateral decisions, no explanation to the paying public, is really a microcosm of a lot of what's going on in business today, you know, outside of sports. So we should always try to raise the standards of decency, the standards of respect, the standards of accountability, wherever they are, and we all know that professional sports is a big business.

PESCA: What's your position on baseball's designated-hitter rule?

Mr. NADER: I've never liked the designated hitter.

PESCA: Now, you realize that's an antiunion stance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: The union likes the designated hitter. It lets old guys who would age out of the league get a second chance.

Mr. NADER: Maybe so. But I like the batters to be players in the field, and the players in the field to be batters.

PESCA: Now, you mentioned your site, which is votenader.org. And you're on the ballot, I think, in Colorado, right? You're running for president.

Mr. NADER: Yes.

PESCA: And I read your blog, and it said, hey, even though you're not polling well on the national polls, look at the Belmont Stakes. The frontrunner doesn't always come in first, because Big Brown lost. But my question to you is, haven't you always criticized the media for covering elections too much like horseraces?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NADER: That's a nice point! Yeah, you know, the horserace syndrome leaves out the little guys that, in American history, have led the way in proposing social justice, like the Liberty Party in 1840 against slavery, and the subsequent women's suffrage party for women's right to vote, and the Farmer Populist Labor Parties. They never won a national election, but aren't we glad that enough voters spun off from the Whigs, Democrats and Republicans to vote for them and get those social justice issues on the table? And that's what our votenader.org website does. By the way, I have a blog that explains in more detail the whole NBA situation...

PESCA: Oh, yeah?

Mr. NADER: On the website. It shows which issues, like single payer and reducing the bloated, wasteful military budget and putting that money into repairing America down to community level and ending the war in Iraq, which issues are on the table for Nader/Gonzalez - Matt Gonzalez, my running mate, a civil rights lawyer in San Francisco - and they're off the table for McCain and Obama.

PESCA: Well, we will say - we will thank you. And I would just like to note that of all the NBA talk on the radio today, this is probably the only one that's also going to include the phrase "single payer." So thank you, Ralph Nader, Independent candidate and sports fan. Thanks again, sir.

Mr. NADER: Thank you, Mike.

PESCA: OK.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Well, quick update. Yesterday, we talked to BMX biker Kevin Robinson about his attempt to make a world-record jump. We've updated it on the blog. Go there. We'll tell you if he made it. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. I am Mike Pesca. Thanks for listening.

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