Nader Blasts NBA For  Shoddy Officiating

In Kings/Lakers Game 6

by Dan Bacher

July 1, 2002



I was in that twilight state of consciousness between deep sleep and full wakefulness when I heard on the local talk show station, KSTE, that Ralph Nader was contesting NBA officiating during the ill-fated Western championship game where the Kings lost to the LA Lakers by 106-102.


Wondering whether I had heard this news correctly or I was still dreaming, I grabbed a copy of the Sacramento Bee, and sure enough, in the back of the sports section was a short article headlined, "Nader Blows Whistle on NBA Officiating."


Like many Sacramentans and Northern Californians, I’m a Kings fan. I’m not devoted as some, but nonetheless a frequent watcher of their games, especially this year’s white knuckle, edge-of-the-seat play-offs. During Game Six, I grimaced when the Kings missed many free throws, but I really came unglued many times during the game when the NBA "referees" acted more like referees at a WWF free-for-all than at a legitimate basketball game.


I also like the fascinating personalities found on the team’s roster, particularly Vlade Divac, the Serbian who wore a black armband during Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia and more recently spoke out against Bush’s "war on terror" and bombing of Afghanistan. While Shaquille O’Neill was making commercials for mega corporations like Burger King, Divac was raising money for Afghan and Balkan orphans displaced by U.S. bombing. Not only is Divac a great center, but he’s a fine and compassionate person who is committed to advancing human rights throughout the world.


Wanting to get the full scoop, I called the League of Sports Fans and received via e-mail a copy of Nader’s letter to David Stern, NBA Commissioner. I was amazed that the world’s foremost consumer rights activist ­ and anti corporate activist ­ thought the conduct of NBA referees so scandalous that the so-called victory by the LA Lakers needed to be contested!


In the letter, dated June 4, Nader and Shawn McCarthy, Director of the League of Fans, strongly urged the NBA to conduct a review of their officiating in Game Six.


"At a time when the public's confidence is shaken by headlines reporting the breach of trust by corporate executives, it is important, during the public's relaxation time, for there to be maintained a sense of impartiality and professionalism in commercial sports performances," stated Nader. "That sense was severely shaken in the now notorious officiating during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings."


Nader cited Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon who wrote that too many of the calls in the fourth quarter (when the Lakers received 27 foul shots) were "stunningly incorrect," all against Sacramento.


After noting that the three referees in Game 6 "are three of the best in the game, Wilbon wrote: "I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6....When Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn't as much as touch Shaq. Didn't touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at courtside.  It wasn't a foul in any league in the world. And Divac, on his fifth foul, didn't foul Shaq.  They weren't subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls not only resulted in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento's two low-post defenders. And one might add, in a 106-102 Lakers' victory, this officiating took away what would have been a Sacramento series victory in 6 games."


Nader went on, "Wilbon discounted any conspiracy theories about the NBA-NBC desire for a Game 7 etc., but unless the NBA orders a review of this game's officiating, perceptions and suspicions, however presently absent any evidence, will abound and lead to more distrust and distaste for the games in general."


Nader also cited the basketball writer for USA Today, David Dupree, who said, "I've been covering the NBA for 30 years, and it's the poorest officiating in an important game I've ever seen."


“When Wilbon writes that ‘The Kings and Lakers didn't decide this series …three referees did..’ when many thousands of fans, not just those in Sacramento, felt that merit lost to bad refereeing, you need to take notice beyond the usual and widespread grumbling by fans and columnists about referees ignoring the rule book and giving advantages to home teams and superstars," said Nader.


Then Nader and McCarthy moved in "for the kill," addressing the nearly absolute power that the NBA wields over its players and fans. "Your problem in addressing the pivotal Game 6 situation is that you have too much power," said Nader. "Where else can decision-makers (the referees) escape all responsibility to admit serious and egregious error and have their bosses (you) fine those wronged (the players and coaches) who dare to speak out critically?"


"You and your league have a large and growing credibility problem, Referees are human and make mistakes, but there comes a point that goes beyond any random display of poor performance. That point was reached in Game 6 which took away the Sacramento Kings Western Conference victory."


"It seems that you have a choice. You can continue to exercise your absolute power to do nothing. Or you can initiate a review and if all these observers and fans turn out to be right, issue, together with the referees, an apology to the Sacramento Kings and forthrightly admit decisive incompetence during Game 6, especially in the crucial fourth quarter."


"You should know, however, that absolute power, if you choose the former course of inaction, invites the time when it is challenged and changed ­ whether by more withdrawal of fans or by more formal legal or legislative action. No government in our country can lawfully stifle free speech and fine those who exercise it; the NBA under present circumstances can both stifle and fine players and coaches who speak up. There is no guarantee that this tyrannical status quo will remain stable over time, should you refuse to bend to reason and the reality of what occurred. A review that satisfies the fans' sense of fairness and deters future recurrences would be a salutary contribution to the public trust that the NBA badly needs."


"Go Ralph!" I thought, since I was enthralled that Nader had the insight to see that corporate power and corruption must be challenged, whether at the WTO meetings, at Enron, in political campaigns or on the basketball court!


What prompted Nader to write the letter? "Nader watched Game 6, and most of the playoffs, as any other sports fan does," said Shawn McCarthy. "Nader, being a very proactive citizen and sports fan, decided to let his feelings be known about the consequences of egregious officiating, focusing on the Game 6 debacle."


I was proud that I had voted for a man, deplored as the "spoiler" by Democrats, that was willing to support grass roots sports fans in their quest for fairness in professional sports. The League of Fans, a sports industry watchdog formed to assure accountability to fans and less harm to the cities that host sports franchises, is yet another aspect of Nader’s campaign for accountability from corporate America.


Much of the left has traditionally viewed sports fans as uncouth, beer drinking reactionaries who aren’t "politically correct." The left and Greens always complain about out how they should reach out to more people ­ but they rarely do anything about it.


Progressives often complain that they are always "preaching to the choir" in alternative magazines and newspapers, as well at demonstrations, rallies and educational events. This is a rare chance to work with a totally different constituency than we usually work with. It has always been my contention that the main reason why the left is generally unsuccessful in getting more support in American society is because it doesn’t ever try to reach regular folks - like sports fans.


I sent out Nader’s letter to my e-mail list of activists and media folks. Responses to my e-mail from local activists ranged from "who cares?,"to strong opposition to Nader getting involved in NBA politics, to solid support of the letter. To her eternal credit, one local peace activist, Jo Ann Fuller, suggested that progressive and Green activists should unite with sports fans to pass a resolution at the Sacramento City Council to support Nader’s letter.


Ken Adams, the local Green Congressional candidate, a sports fan and author of baseball books, also wrote me that professional sports were important because they can be used "as an example of larger political issues such as ownership/labor. As I have said many times, since people recognize that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to baseball, they give me more credence when I'm talking about politics. Plus I really enjoy sneaking political messages into the sports pages."


At press time, Nader’s letter had received no response from Commissioner Stern. However, Stern, when interviewed on ESPN Radio's "The Dan Patrick Show," said that he does not plan on responding to Mr. Nader directly.


The public response from throughout the country to Nader’s letter has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from people in the Sacramento region but even from some in L.A., according to McCarthy. "Most negative responses were from people who obviously didn't read the entire letter and misinterpreted Ralph as a ‘Lakers hater’, ‘Kings fan’ or ‘conspiracy theorist’, none of which are true" he said. "As it turns out, it seems to have struck a nerve among many fans of basketball who have been feeling that way for a while and don't want to see any more loss of credibility in the NBA."


Nader’s contention of NBA "officiating" provides progressives a great chance to work with a different constituency that they normally don't interact with - sports fans. I'll agree that an apparently "fixed" basketball game may not appear to be the most consequential issue at a time when FBI has just been granted new and sweeping powers to snoop into our lives and while Israel continues to kill Palestinians on a daily basis in the occupied territories. But Nader’s letter is a great issue to organize around because it challenges the nearly absolute power of the National Basketball Association and puts a national spotlight on the corruption and lack of accountability of professional sports’ corporate leaders.


To create a more just and fair society, the left needs to get "Joe Sixpack" and the millions of sports fans on our side. Ralph Nader has paved the way ­ we can’t let this opportunity to challenge corporate power pass because of elitist attitudes among progressives!


Dan Bacher is an outdoor writer/alternative journalist/satirical song writer from Sacramento California. He is also a long-time peace, social justice and environmental activist. Email: