Were NBA Games Tainted?

Tim Donaghy #21 stands on the court during a game between the Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies on December 19, 2005 at FedexForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Getty Images/Joe Murphy

Now that former National Basketball Association referee Tim Donaghy has admitted and apologized for betting on games he officiated and for feeding inside information to a gambling syndicate, there are many unanswered questions about the scope of the scandal. Topping the list are which games did Donaghy & Co. bet on and how much money did the conspirators pocket? But beyond these wagers, the deeper mystery for sports fans is did Donaghy actually taint the outcome of any NBA games by making calls that affected the results or point totals so important in sports betting?

"Consider what we must believe in order to conclude that Tim Donaghy did not fix games – that a person troubled enough to provide inside information to criminals was able to referee games in which he had a financial interest in the outcome without any bias," says RJ Bell, a Las Vegas gambling expert and data cruncher who runs a sports betting service and website called Pregame.com.

The NBA is not commenting on what it knows. "We will continue with our ongoing and thorough review of the league's officiating program to ensure that the best possible policies and procedures are in place to protect the integrity of our game," Commissioner David Stern said in a statement issued moments after Donaghy left court.

Donaghy, 40, one of the stable of 60 NBA referees for 13 seasons, pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy counts this week – conspiracy to engage in wire fraud as part of a scheme to defraud the league of honest services and conspiracy to transmit gambling information across state lines, or simply stated, calling in his picks and bets long distance.

In his guilty plea in Brooklyn federal court and in unsealed court documents, Donaghy admitted to the following:

  • Betting on NBA games himself, including some where he was part of the three-referee crew, during the past four years.

  • Feeding gamblers inside information he had access to as a referee, such as the true physical condition of players.

  • Receiving up to $5,000 cash for each game he correctly picked the outcome and whether the winning team beat the point the spread.

  • Earning at least $30,000 from the scheme, the amount he forfeited to the government.

  • Getting medical treatment for a gambling addiction, including taking antidepressants.

    "I was in a unique position to predict the outcome of NBA games," a Donaghy told the U.S. District Judge Carol Amon. Then, in a little noticed remark with potentially large implications, Donaghy suggested some referees show favoritism to certain players on the court. "I was also aware of the manner in which officials interacted with players and called games," he told Amon. Thus, Donaghy's disclosing to gamblers the league's tightly-held schedule of referee assignments was an advantage in the wagering. Even teams don't know who their referees will be until game day.

    As required in any conspiracy conviction, Donaghy admitted to at least one overt act to further the scheme – meeting with two alleged co-conspirators, childhood friends James Battista, 42, and Thomas Martino, 41, in Philadelphia last December for a payment. Subsequent payoffs occurred in Phoenix in January, in Toronto in March, and in Washington in April, according to court documents. An FBI agent's affidavit alleges Martino received the telephone tips, sometimes in coded language, on what teams to bet and relayed the information to Battista, who placed the bets.

    Gambling guru RJ Bell thinks he knows which games the conspirators likely bet on. Vegas defines betting on an NBA game as "heavy" when it causes odds makers to shift the point spread, or "line," by a point-and-a-half or more.

    "It's the big money that typically affects the line – 10, 20, 30-thousand dollar bets. So when you have a line move of a point-and-a-half or two or three points, that doesn't happen all that often," Bell explains.

    There were 15 such games last season, according to Bell, and all were officiated by Donaghy.

    "In those games, there were 15 times in a row that the big bettors won," Bell continues. "The odds of that happening without any outside influence – 15 winners and 0 losers – is over 32,000 to 1."

    So far, Donaghy and court documents specify a five-month period, from December 2006 through April 2007, when the illicit activity occurred.

    One game Donaghy admits calling in a tip was the match up last December 13 between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. The Vegas line originally favored the Celtics by a point-and-a-half. But the betting on the Celtics was so heavy, by tip off the line was three-and-half points, according to Pregame.com's records. The Celtics easily won by 20 points and beat the point spread. The next day Donaghy collected his cash in Philadelphia.

    One week later, Donaghy officiated a game between the Seattle Sonics and Dallas Mavericks, who were originally favored by six points. By game time, heavy betting on Dallas had moved the line to seven-and-a-half points. The game was controversial; Seattle was called for so many more fouls that Seattle coach Bob Hill vowed to complain to the NBA. Afforded triple the number of free throws, Dallas won by eight points and beat the spread in a come from behind victory.

    "If he had just made one or two foul calls in that game because he had an agenda, he could very well have changed who won or lost that NBA game" or who won bets on the game, Bell says of Donaghy.

    Battista and Martino face indictment in the next 30 days and vow to plead not guilty. Donaghy is due to be sentenced in November.

    "I'm very sorry about what happened," Donaghy, told the New York Daily News outside his Florida home, following his court appearance. "I'm not going to say anything beyond that. This is an ongoing case - I can't say anything else."
    Phil Hirschkorn
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      Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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