It has been more than a decade since Tim Donaghy entered the pubic lexicon as the face of a game-fixing scandal in the NBA. He pleaded guilty and served 15 months in federal prison in 2008-09 for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to transmit gambling information.
He was never found to have fixed the NBA games he reffed, instead copping only to betting on his own games. The FBI and NBA investigated.
As the 10-year anniversary of the 2007 scandal hit, ESPN started a years-long investigation released online Tuesday morning. It found through interviews, court documents, records and statistical analysis of games that Donaghy did conspire to fix NBA games.
How refs ‘fix’ games
Officials can fix games by calling more fouls, thereby creating more opportunity for a team to get easy points at the free-throw line. The league average for made free throws has hovered around 75 percent for nearly its entire existence, and the best in the game make them more than 90 percent of the time.
Sources told ESPN that Donaghy would use the “literal interpretation” of rules to cover the calls. Per the report, a ref who looked over the calls during the NBA investigation found it a “trend” — not a “red flag” — and it was never used in the league report.
Another source said Donaghy would make an illegal defense call early to get the side he was picking against to play looser D. And he himself alleged in his 2009 memoir that refs would get big-name players in foul trouble early to help throw games.
He had the underground connections to do it all from his ties in Philadelphia, where he grew up, and the lavish lifestyle with which he set himself up.
Statisticians find it unlikely he didn’t fix games
The ESPN report analyzed the 40 games in the 2006-07 season that Donaghy officiated during the “marriage” between he and a sports bookie who paid him $2,000 if his pick won.
ESPN said it employed a “researcher with an extensive background in officiating” to closely watch the games and log the calls. They then compared the imbalance of calls to the team that had more betting dollars.
The site found that Donaghy’s track record was 23-3-4 “of making calls that favored his bet.” The odds that he randomly made calls to produce such a record? ESPN statisticians found them to be 6,155-to-1.
The company also had Keith Crank of the National Science Foundation look at the information. Per ESPN, he found a 4.1 percent chance the foul calls happened randomly.
To professional statisticians, any P value of less than 5 percent constitutes a signal that is “significant.” It means you’ve found something. In our case, it means there’s just a 4.1 percent chance that an unbiased ref would have randomly made the calls that Tim Donaghy did during his crooked run.
Betting outfits catch on
One gambler told ESPN that based on box scores, Donaghy “obviously” called more fouls on the team he bet against then the team he bet on. And others at sportsbooks started to catch on early, making connections between who they knew were golfing or were friends with the NBA ref.
They didn’t say a word, though, and instead followed suit by placing large bets on games that Donaghy’s conspirators did.
“Did I assume he was fixing the games?” one gambler told ESPN. “Yeah, I did. But I didn’t give a s–, because it was great information. From 2003 to 2007, we didn’t miss a game. Any game that he reffed we had a wager on.”
Why does it matter now?
ESPN stated it looked back into the biggest game-fixing scandal to rock the NBA because of not only the 10-year anniversary, but also the Supreme Court decision in May 2018 that opened up legalized sports gambling.
Legalizing it allows for regulation of it, making it safer for those betting but also making it so states can tax gambling.
Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was particularly excited for the legalization because previously organized crime had been “benefiting from this every day.” It was the FBI team tasked with covering crime in the Gambino mafia family that initially began the federal case against Donaghy.
Donaghy himself told The Guardian in a 2015 Q&A that organized crime would always be involved if there’s a betting line. He said legalizing betting would force leagues such as the NBA to pay closer attention to what’s happening in a game.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who was not in charge during the Donaghy scandal, has been outspoken about his support of legalized gambling. More than four years ago he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in favor of it, asking that one of the regulations Congress enact be “mandatory monitoring and reporting of unusual betting-line movements.”
Donaghy and those ESPN detailed to be involved or betting behind him caused the line to sway violently throughout the day. Per the report, they would prep the markets to buy at the right price, then tell Donaghy the spread he needed to cover that night.
It was a financial windfall. And the exact type of thing those involved in sports don’t want to see again. A thorough report on how exactly the game-fixing happened — even seeming to confirm for the first time that it did — and how deep or wide-spread it went will benefit those tasked with keeping the integrity of any sport intact.
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