Michael K. Shaub, April 4th, 2013
As an NBA fan, officials are not high on my favorites list. As a San Antonio Spurs fan, one official, in particular, draws the ire of all Tim Duncan supporters: Joey Crawford. Crawford is famous for throwing Spurs star Tim Duncan out of a late 2007 season game against the Mavericks for laughing at his officiating calls from the bench. But the referee was suspended for the rest of the season and playoffs, apparently for challenging Duncan to a fight in the confrontation. Crawford has recently said that the event caused him to reevaluate the way he refereed and to seek more extensive counseling to deal with anger management.
What Crawford, a skilled, veteran referee had lost with respect to Tim Duncan was objectivity. This week a similar incident came to light when former NBA referee Ed Rush, now the supervisor of basketball officials for the Pac 12 Conference, allegedly offered $5000 or a trip to Cancun to any official who would give a technical to or eject Arizona coach Sean Miller during the Pac 12 tournament. It may have been in jest, but according to one official, Rush reiterated the focus on Miller during a meeting on the tournament’s second day. In fact, official Michael Irving called a late-game technical on Miller for yelling about a double-dribble call, and UCLA went on to beat Miller’s Wildcats, 66-64. While Pac 12 Commissioner Larry Scott agreed that it was “completely inappropriate” and reflected “very, very poor judgment,” he concluded that it was not an offense worthy of Rush being fired. In fact, he concluded that “[t]here was nothing unethical or a breach of integrity.” His conclusion is dead wrong.
Actually, these comments are not unprecedented for Rush. After he finished his NBA officiating career, he served as the league’s director of officials. In January of 2002, Dallas Mavericks owner famously said of Rush’s leadership, “Ed Rush might have been a great ref, but I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen. His interest is not in the integrity of the game or improving the officiating.” Cuban tweeted after the latest incident, “Not surprised…It will get worse.” Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who famously sacrificed his own objectivity and career by gambling on NBA games, accuses Rush of making comments about Cuban to NBA officials similar to the ones he made about Miller. Of course, Donaghy’s own lack of credibility comes into play here.
Whether the comments were made in jest or not, Rush provides strong evidence that he has lost his objectivity. And the power that he wields over Pac 12 officials gives the appearance that his loss of objectivity contributed to unequal treatment in a tournament game. The issue is not that Miller was treated badly; it would have been just as bad if he had been favored by officials, or an insinuation had been given that someone should be helped. What is wrong here, and what drew Larry Scott’s ire, is that Ed Rush was not objective.
It makes no sense for Scott to claim that integrity was not sacrificed; in officiating, integrity and objectivity are inseparable. You cannot be “whole” or “true” in your evaluations as a referee if you are biased, or if you introduce that bias as a person in authority.
The same is true for auditors, the people I train for our profession. It is not enough to be technically competent, as all three referees in this story arguably are, or were. You must also be a person of integrity and objectivity. And, what is critical, you must be objective not just in fact, but in appearance. If you lose the appearance of objectivity, you have lost the trust of those who rely on you for unbiased judgments so that they are not misled, whether in the financial statements or in the final score of a basketball game.
The bigger danger with auditors, and with those who supervise them, is to lose objectivity by becoming cheerleaders for their clients, not by harshly and unfairly judging them. Many accounting firms have found out that juries are apt to punish auditors harshly in the case of audit failures when it is obvious that they have lost objectivity and become their clients’ advocates.
The jury may still be out on Ed Rush’s objectivity. But, if the accusations are true, Commissioner Scott’s conclusion that Rush did not sacrifice his integrity by making those statements may come back to haunt him.