The Brancatelli File



February 24, 1998 -- Say "Hallelujah," business travelers!

Go to the bathroom in your hotel room and anoint yourself with the herbal essence of the holy oils in those amenities bottles. Dig the Gideon Bible out of the night stand, kneel in front of your laptop and put your hands on the keyboard!

Pray with me, brothers and sisters, because I come to testify: There is a God! He, She or It is just! The Lord is my frequent flyer!

I turn my eyes to the heavens this week because, like all of us who wander in the business-travel wilderness, I have only religious explanations for the stupidity of four of our tribe and the Biblical retribution that has rightfully befallen them.

Let me tell you the parable of the basketball referees and the first-class downgrades, the final verse of which was sung last weekend.

Brothers and sisters, Brothers Mathis, Toliver, Kersey and Armstrong were all frequent flyers. They refereed National Basketball Association games for a living. Knowing of their frequent-flying ways--and nailed to the wall by its contract with referees--the NBA gave first-class tickets to Brothers Mathis and the others.

But what did they do with the first-class tickets that The Lord intended them to use for the shuttle from Chicago's United Center to the Continental Arena in New Jersey, the trek from the Delta Center in Utah to the America West Arena in Phoenix, and all the wearying flights to the other NBA gyms without airline names?

Brother Mathis and the other referees cashed in their first-class tickets, downgraded to coach and pocketed the differences in the fares.

The Lord saw their sins and was not pleased. After all, they broke the First Commandment of Frequent Flying: Thou Shalt Not Sit in Coach if Your Boss Will Pay for First.

So The Lord decided to punish Brother Mathis and the others for their stupidity.

Now The Lord needed a suitable punishment to show his displeasure with the most blasphemous of his frequent-flying flock. He considered turning them into pillars of salt, but that would have been really messy when the ballplayers started sweating. He considered condemning them to an eternity of middle seats in the coach classes where they so willingly wallowed, but that seemed more like the end of an episode of The Twilight Zone than the verse of a Psalm.

Instead, The Lord pulled out a Biblical classic and updated it: He rained down upon them a plague of IRS men.

As it turns out, Brother Mathis and the others were really stupid. Not only did they sit in coach when they could have sat in first, they didn't declare as income the refunds they received for downgrading from first to coach.

The plague of tax men indicted Brother Mathis and the others last year. Brothers Toliver and Kersey quickly saw the error of their ways. They pleaded guilty to tax evasion, resigned from the NBA and ratted on their fellow refs. Toliver was placed on probation and fined $30,000. Kersey and Armstrong, who also pled guilty, have yet to be sentenced.

Which left only Brother Mathis. Verily, the prosecutors said unto us that Brother Mathis's tactic of downgrading from first to the bowels of coach netted him $69,000 in unreported income between 1989 and 1992. Brother Mathis was also accused of obtaining bogus airline receipts and invoices from a travel agent to conceal his stupidity and his ill-gotten gains.

In Cincinnati last weekend, Brother Mathis was finally called before the judgment of The Lord. He pleaded guilty in federal court of filing a fraudulent income-tax return and resigned from the NBA. The Lord's strong right arm, U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith, said she will wait for a report before sentencing Mathis, who faces up to five years in the holy hoosgow.

So what, brothers and sisters, can we learn from the parable of the referees and first-class downgrades?

Simply this: Sit in coach when you can sit in first and you will be punished for your stupidity.

Thus speaketh The Lord.

Say "Hallelujah!" and check on your upgrade.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.