The uneasy truth behind Tim Donaghy’s allegations

Disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who was convicted of two charges related to betting on NBA games (some of which he worked as an official), is out of prison, pimping a new book and telling his story to 60 Minutes and ESPN. What he’s saying, and who’s backing him up, has to be giving NBA Commish David Stern a king-hell case of the nightsweats.

We’ll stipulate up front that the witness has a credibility issue. He is, after all, a convicted felon, and one guilty of betraying the trust of the players and pro hoop fans around the world. Let’s go a step further – he betrayed the trust of every athlete in America by fixing what ought to have been fair competitions. Thanks to Donaghy, it’s harder than ever to make the case for the integrity of sport (at any level – and if you’ve played any sport that involved an official, you know what I’m talking about). So before we get started, let’s be clear: this post isn’t looking to canonize St. Tim of Donaghy.

This said, just because you’re a crook doesn’t mean that some (or even most) of what you say isn’t accurate. And for many of us, the story Donaghy is telling has about it the uneasy ring of truth. We might not buy the full-on conspiracy charges in their entirety (and we probably shouldn’t), but the disconcerting thing about Donaghy’s story is that we don’t have to in order to conclude that the NBA is putting a compromised competition on the floor.

In the opening moments of his interview with ESPN’s Mark Schwarz, Donaghy says that of all the pro sports in the US basketball is the easiest to manipulate because of the “subjectivity of the calls.” He says that games are changed “on a nightly basis,” and he goes into significant detail about how certain officials let their like or dislike of particular players, coaches or even owners affect the calls they make on the floor.

The NBA, obviously, disputes every word of it.

Donaghy points to several specific players who don’t get a fair shake and to at least one very specific instance – the treatment that Allen Iverson received after the league refused to suspend him for threatening an official – as examples. Some of it makes sense, of course. Refs are human, and when punks like Rasheed Wallace (who has never committed a foul in his life) are called out, you’ll hear no complaints from me. I’ve officiated a variety of sports, including well over 1,000 games in soccer, and not only is it understandable that refs treat problem children differently, it’s actually a good thing. Some players work very hard to get over on the refs and their opponents unfairly, engaging in behavior that runs the gamut from the disruption caused by unnecessary bitching to faking injury to overtly dirty play that threatens the physical health of other competitors, so NBA analyst Kenny Smith is right on the money when he compares officiating to parenting: treating everybody fairly isn’t equal to treating everybody the same.

The problem arises when these tendencies (and more extreme cases of bias, where an official calls things differently for some players simply because he or she doesn’t like them) lead to a predictable pattern of behavior that changes outcomes. This is the part of what Donaghy has to say that’s the most concerning.

In these interviews, Donaghy claims that inside knowledge allowed him to bet effectively. Specifically, he says his track record of success in betting games in which he was not involved was between 70 and 80%. This is against the spread, remember, so we’re not talking about betting good teams against bad ones. This is 70-80% on a level playing field. If he knew who the teams were and who the refs were, his intimate knowledge of who hated who made it possible to predict outcomes with a ridiculous level of success.

The killing blow here? His claims are backed up by the lead FBI agent who investigated his case, which addresses the credibility issue we talked about above. We don’t have to take the word of a convicted felon – we have the word of Phillip Scala, a highly placed, experienced law enforcement professional who knows his away around corruption.

Let’s be very clear here, then. We are not talking about a simple “refs are human” problem. That we can understand and accept. What we’re talking about instead is systematic, predictable, actionable bias. We’re talking about behavior that routinely changes the results of games in a knowable direction.

So ultimately Donaghy’s crime was less about game fixing and more about … insider trading? And you can’t effectively trade on unreliable or nonexistent inside information, can you? What Donaghy says he did, and what the FBI confirms that he did, is real.

Earlier this year I wrote about the five sets of rules you find in NBA games:

1: The official rules. Somewhere the official laws of the game are written down. No one knows why.

2: The interpreted rules. The official rules may say that X is a foul, but X can happen 45 times in a game and you never hear a whistle. The refs all have interpretations of what the rules mean, so don’t get hung up on what they say.

3: The home team rules. You get calls at home that you don’t get on the road.

4: Established star rules. If you’ve been in the league awhile – and especially if you’re a marquee player – you get calls that rookies and journeymen and lesser beings don’t get.

5: Late in the game rules. It may have been a class A felony in the first quarter, but all’s fair in love, war and the last two minutes of the game. After all, you have to let the players decide the game, not the refs.

It looks like I left one out: The rules for players the refs don’t like.

David Stern, the league establishment and the collected sports punditry that surrounds the game (an assemblage of networks, writers, former player analysts and so on, all of who have some skin in the game and a powerful incentive to make sure that the public doesn’t begin confusing the NBA with the WWE) can preen and declaim and damn the messenger all they like. But millions of people who watch the games are duly suspicious. They know what they see, night and night out, and not all of them – not all of us – are mindless paranoid homers.

One of these days a squeaky clean NBA ref or league official, somebody who’s disgusted by the arrogance behind the scenes, is going to step forward and confirm a lot of what Tim Donaghy is saying today. On that day, the old argumentum ad hominem approach that comprises the entirety of the league’s reaction at present isn’t going to work anymore.

And then the league is going to be facing a crisis 100 times worse than the Donaghy debacle.

Image Credit: The Guardian and tophatal1.


  • Donaghy’s betting record is too good to ignore – either other refs were in on it or it’s as he described it.

    Normally, I’d say this is why I don’t watch the NBA, but it goes so much deeper than that. It’s the integrity of organized sports on the line here. That one person can so easily manipulate the system devastates the concept of fair play. This scandal is the worst thing to happen to professional sports since the Black Sox, and that includes Pete Rose.

  • Interesting. On the one hand, it makes the absurd case for video review of every play (as well as making officials’ calls reviewable). It also showcases how important image is to any legal system. Ultimately, you’re only as reputable as your people.

    On the other hand, it exposes the dark side of Pete Rozelle’s dream of league parity. In any modern sports entertainment business where every franchise is made equal, the razor’s edge is sharper than it used to be … and more subject to manipulation.

  • Is the last set of rules that much worse than, say, numbers 3 and 4? Those are examples of predictable and systematic bias, too, aren’t they? Do they not affect the outcome of games to the same extent? Or is it the “insider” part that makes the big difference in degree?

    I wonder – if you were to watch as many games as possible, note the referees and the calls they made on certain players, could you figure out who disliked whom and make accurate predictions? Or does it require being on the inside to really know?

  • No, all of the rules except set #1 are very bad and have the effect of changing outcomes. Not sure which is the worst, but all undercut the integrity of the game.

    If you had the time to study all the refs and all the players you could probably figure some things out, I’d imagine. But that would be time consuming and indirect. You’d never get to the point where you were as good at it as a guy in the refs’ locker room, I don’t imagine.

  • This would make a great research project for a consortium of psychology professors using students to do the filming and the data entry. I have some questions, for instance, about how Duke basketball players, who tend to be whiter than average, are treated. I think they get better foul calls than other teams, but that’s subjective and I’d love to see some objective data.

    • I’ve always been of the impression that both Carolina and Duke get pretty friendly treatment from the refs. I never thought about it in racial terms, though. For me, it’s just about the “respect” that goes with winning. And all of a sudden you have a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

      But I may not be looking deeply enough. Race may well be a factor in officiating at all levels….

  • Yeah. The fact is, I don’t know. It could simply be bias of another kind. There may be more refs in the ACC from North Carolina, for instance. It would take a long term measurement and a factor analysis to sort it out, but I’d love it if someone did it.

  • I bet Vegas is doing it. But I doubt they’ll publish the results. 🙂

  • If Vegas knew what Donaghy knows, they’d have the bias built into the lines to start with.

  • That’s what I mean. If they didn’t know it before, they do now and I’m certain they have stats people working on it.

  • Nah, Slammy, Vegas wouldn’t have it built into the lines unless it was widespread knowledge. The lines are there only to balance out winners with losers so that the house never loses. People with information like this change the lines in minor ways with their bets, but the overall line is set to try to get the money on both sides to be even.

  • Pingback: Lakers/Nuggets Game 7 preview: call your bookie because the #fix is in | Scholars and Rogues

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