The Real Story of Tim Donaghy & the NBA

In early November 2010, the Harris Poll conducted a study (likely on behalf of the NBA due to the specific NBA-related questions near the conclusion) to see how fans felt about "sports."  Among the questions asked of participants was "Please rate the likelihood of the league office influencing the outcomes of games to benefit its business?"  Other questions also allowed respondents to rate if the possibility of games being fixed at a league's insistance affected whether they watched the sport or not.  Did the Tim Donaghy scandal and the work of people like myself bring about this poll?

Now on with the story...

The NBA would like to relegate the story of its disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy to a sad footnote in its longstanding, glorious history. If, as a fan, you want to have a basketball organization that you can hold in high regard, you cannot let this happen.

Most every sports fan knows the gist of Donaghy’s story by now. A 13-year referee for the NBA, Donaghy was arrested by the FBI and subsequently convicted in federal court for gambling on NBA games. That’s the simple story. But the reality, and repercussions, of Donaghy’s tale runs much deeper.

Donaghy began gambling on NBA games while employed as a referee in 2003. Between that time and the end of the 2006-07 season, Donaghy and his accomplices bet on approximately 40 games a season with an incredibly high success rate (some estimates figure they were correct over 80% of the time). He originally worked with Jack Concannon, who was never charged or arrested for his association with Donaghy. It wasn’t until 2006 that Donaghy hooked up with two former high school friends, James Battista and Thomas Martino, and began gambling through them. It was Battista and Martino who were convicted and sentenced alongside Donaghy.

What is interesting is that for a supposedly “addicted gambler” Donaghy did not place a single bet himself. He simply provided information to Concannon and later Battista and Martino for which he got a kickback on winning wagers which was reportedly $2000 per game. If Donaghy’s info did not lead to a winning bet, he did not suffer any consequences.

It is perhaps possible that these friends of Donaghy acted as “beards,” placing bets in Donaghy’s behalf, but that can only be speculated upon as the FBI did not find collaborating evidence to tie into that idea.

 The inside information Donaghy provided – ranging from who the referees were in certain games, players’ conditions, etc. - came on both games in which he was and was not officiating. Even in games that Donaghy was a part of, he claimed that he did not influence (at least, according to court records, “consciously”) any of the games in which a bet was wagered. Whether you want to believe that or not is up to you.


If there were games intentionally fixed by Donaghy during this time – and I, for one, cannot believe Donaghy did not do anything to influence a game in which he stood to gain financially – neither the FBI nor NBA will admit it. But for years sports bookies, gamblers, and the professional sports leagues themselves claimed that games could never be fixed because if one was, the gambling community could sniff it out. Strange movements within the betting line and unnatural money showing up on any one game would tip everyone off that the fix was in. Yet Donaghy and his boys were able to get away with this – even with these exact occurrences happening – for 4 years before the FBI, not the gambling community, discovered it.

But it wasn’t until Donahgy was in federal custody that things really got interesting. In order to save himself some prison time, Donaghy began singing like a canary to the feds. NBA Commission David Stern would repeated berate the point that no one should believe Donaghy’s claims as he was simply saying things to potentially lower his sentence. Stern said that Donaghy had no credibility.

This brings up two important points. Number one: Donaghy was indeed trying to spend as little time in jail as possible. Who wouldn’t? But he could not, and even dare not, make up stories to tell the feds to do this. With the federal conviction rate running at about 95%, any such lies are going to be ferreted out and extra time added to the resultant sentence. A rational person does not lie when in federal custody.

What Donaghy was doing was not any different than what happens when mafia figures are arrested by the feds. Often, they rat out their former compatriots to save themselves. The FBI does not look down upon, or disbelieve, these stories. No, what they are told leads to further investigations and hopefully, further arrests. It’s standard operating procedure. So Donaghy’s behavior was quite typical for one involved in such a situation.

Point number two: Commissioner Stern knocking Donaghy’s credibility. This is laughable to say the least. It was the NBA that hired Donaghy despite numerous background checks. It was the NBA that let Donaghy officiate their highly sought after playoff games, even though they continually monitored his on- and off-the-court actions. It was the NBA that employed Donaghy for 13 years - and potentially more had the FBI not arrested him. It is the NBA that has an entire security division employed to monitor players, team officials, and referees in an attempt to stem any such criminal behavior. Yet the NBA did not catch Donaghy. In fact, his arrest came as a shock to the league. So who is lacking more credibility? Donaghy, or the league that employed – and would’ve continued to employ – him?

Before you answer that question, consider what Donaghy ultimately told the feds: That the NBA routinely instructed its referees to alter the outcomes of its games. Or, to put it more simply, the NBA is fixed.

This is something the entire sports reporting world has glossed over and intentionally ignored. If Donaghy is telling the truth in his dealings with the feds – and there is no indication forthcoming from anyone not in the NBA saying otherwise – then what you believe to be honest and fairly played NBA games is a joke.

Donaghy made the same argument this author has been making for years: The NBA fixed its own games to garner better television ratings and thus make more money for both itself and the networks that basically fund the sport. Referees were instructed to avoid calling fouls on “star” players, ignore or strictly enforce rules as the situation calls for, and ultimately, alter the outcomes of certain key games should the need arise. 


 Why this story will die on the vine is simple. No sports reporter will follow up on it because their livelihood is directly tied to the end result (for if one league is crooked, chances are others are just as fixed as the NBA may be).

The networks won’t touch the story as they, too, have fortunes tied to pro sports and cannot have the truth revealed.

And, perhaps most importantly, the FBI won’t investigate further because no crime is being committed.

The NBA, and every other pro sports league, can intentionally fix the outcomes of their games without committing a crime. It is not illegal. Fixing a game for gambling purposes is, yet doing the same for entertainment purposes is not.

So the only “investigation” the sports fan gets in response to Tim Donaghy’s case is the NBA’s own Pedowitz Report (read it for yourself here). Released on October 1, 2008 the report reads exactly like every other league mandated report that came before it (with the exception of MLB’s Mitchell Report on steroids which had to name names if baseball wanted to maintain a shred of what’s left of its dignity). The report’s findings? Donaghy acted alone. Other referees may have broken the league’s collective bargaining agreement by gambling, but none did so illegally. And, surprise surprise, Donaghy’s lying when he claims the NBA calls on its referees to do its dirty work and fix games.

What’s interesting about the Pedowitz Report is that it was really put together, by its own admission, as a “compliance review” and not an investigation into Donaghy. It does cover Donaghy’s allegations – and dismisses every one of them, of course – but that was not the report’s primary concern. The report was initiated to figure out a way to stop any future Tim Donaghys from occurring. Yet the NBA and their cohorts in the gambling world told us that they already had such a foolproof system in place. But the truth is, they could not – and still cannot – stop players, coaches, or referees from gambling and potentially fixing games if they so desire. (Never mind the fact that the NBA could be calling on them to do just that for their own purposes).

So as Donaghy sits in prison for the next 15 months refusing to speak to anyone about his past or the allegations he leveled against his former employer, the NBA revs itself up for another season. The question fans need to ask is: who do you believe? The NBA or Donaghy? There very well may be some gray area of truth between both sides’ stories, but the needle on the gauge will swing more to one side’s case than the other’s.

I, for one, believe Donaghy. Not simply because he’s touting what I already believed, but because if he was lying, the FBI and the federal courts would have added on to his prison time rather than shortening his sentence as they ultimately did. The FBI itself will currently not discuss this case, and they would not give full access to the writers of the Pedowitz Report because they are still investigating certain aspects of it. As much as the NBA wants it to end, this story will not cease until the feds say so.

But the final call has to be up to the fan. Do you believe the NBA? Can you trust it? Or has Donaghy, both through his actions and allegations, soured you on a league that, to this author, cannot be trusted?

Just remember this when you contemplate what Tim Donaghy revealed about the inner workings of the NBA:  Had the FBI not arrested him, Donaghy would still be officiating in the NBA today.

UPDATE:  Donaghy was attacked and beaten in prison by an alledged mafia member in November 2008.  Read more about this and discover what it may mean in my Bleacher Report article.

What should perhaps scare you even more if you are an NBA fan is to consider the following:

NBA Commissioner David Stern’s stated plan for marketing the league is “the marketing of heroes.” Which makes sense. When he became the commissioner, the NBA lived and died with the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Julius "Dr. J" Erving. And in the first NBA draft he oversaw, Stern welcomed Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Michael Jordan into the league. What’s remarkable is that Stern’s mission statement has become the key to putting together a championship team.

From the 1990-91 season through the 2009-10 season, three of the NBA’s brightest stars during that time - the group of Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant - have been responsible for 15 of the last 20 NBA championships. Of those five NBA Finals not won by any of those three players, Bryant still appeared in two of those contests (against Detroit in ‘03-‘04 and Boston in ’07-’08) which resulted in losses, meaning that 17 of the last 20 NBA Finals featured either Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, or Kobe Bryant. No other sport can brag of such a run.

Rising star Dwayne Wade, while partnered with Shaquille O’Neal, also grabbed a championship during this time span, making the total 16 out of 20 (and one could make the argument that the total should be 18 out of 20 championships because two more were won by NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon during Jordan’s original retirement years). This points to one of two conclusions. Either NBA basketball isn’t a team sport but one easily dominated by a single great player, or something else is in fact occurring within the league.

Is it merely a coincidence that the NBA’s marketing plan of choice is to promote their “heroes” above all else, while at the same time these handful of heroes consistently lead their teams to championship after championship? Other modern day players deemed exceptional – Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, and Patrick Ewing to name a few – have seen some limited success, but never achieved the pinnacle of winning a championship. At the same time, they were never given the level of promotion that Jordan and Bryant ever received (Duncan, for all his success, has never been seen as a marketable personality).

The question then remains, does the NBA grant these “hero” players extra leeway on the court to ensure they reach the levels of success the NBA itself needs to be profitable? As the authors wrote in Money Players, “[NBA Commissioner] Stern refused to admit it, but the NBA lived year to year, crossing its fingers for the right rating matchups. It seemed the whole world had grown accustomed to the NBA’s being able to deliver new episodes of Star Wars every season.”

It can be amazing how luck runs the NBA’s way. While already on a steady decline, the 2006-07 NBA Finals garnered some of the worst ratings in league history. Yet in the ensuing offseason, the league signed its most lucrative contract with the TV networks to date, bringing the league nearly $1 billion a season. What happened the very next season?

The NBA was “blessed” with the dream match-up of the Boston Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2007-08 NBA Finals. Was this just good luck on the NBA’s part? With the help of key acquisitions – such as Kevin Garnett landing in Boston, and Pau Gasol being traded to the Lakers (while Kobe Bryant, who demanded a trade prior to the season starting because he saw no hope of the Lakers that year, remained with the team) – both franchises received massive boosts to their rosters. Of course, both teams easily made the playoffs. Then their magic really began to take shape.

Both teams march to the Finals brought in massive ratings as ESPN’s numbers were up some 35% and ABC’s were up 28% according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine which cited Neilsen Media Research. Upon reaching the Conference Finals, the match-ups of the Lakers vs. the Spurs and the Celtics against the Pistons kicked ratings up 40% over the year before. Then, when both the Lakers and Celtics triumphed, the NBA had its dream match-up with its two most honored franchises meeting up face to face. Not only did the league benefit from having both the East and West Coasts covered, they had the two teams with the biggest fan followings playing each other. Top that off with the hype of the storied rivalry between the teams and what did you get? The ’07-’08 Finals saw a ratings boost of nearly 45% from just a year ago. What better way to make good on that $1 billion a year TV revenue contract than to bring your broadcasting partners the highest ratings in recent memory.

Was that luck, coincidence, or something else?

--By Brian Tuohy