How Hard is it to Detect Crooked Officiating?Everybody is trying to find footage of games officiated by disgraced referee Tim Donaghy and then looking for indications that he was manipulating the score and/or result in some fashion. One might think that such signs would be easy to detect but the fact that Donaghy graded out as an above average referee in the NBA's rankings suggests that if Donaghy did something wrong then he was not blatant about it. An interesting article by Jonathan Feigin of the Houston Chronicle reveals just how difficult it is to conclusively prove that a referee is biased.
In the first 15 games that Donaghy officiated last season in which the point spread moved at least 1.5 points, the "big-money" bettors went 15-0. Handicapper Matty O'Shea told Feigin that the odds against that happening randomly are "33,000 to 1." Obviously, that looks suspicious but O'Shea points out that in several of those games there were valid reasons for the line to move dramatically, such as an injury to a star player. So, there is no getting around the fact that you have to go to the tape and actually look at the calls Donaghy made (or didn't make) and see if anything looks odd. Feigin did just that, with the help of Mel Whitworth, who refereed in the NBA from 1985-1990.
Whitworth told Feigin, "I've watched Tim referee on many occasions. I've never thought he was a very good referee. Obviously, the NBA thinks different because he worked the playoffs." However, despite Whitworth's low opinion of Donaghy's officiating skills in general, film study of two Rockets games that Donaghy called last year yielded nothing unusual to Whitworth's trained eyes. "Even knowing what we know, I see zero, absolutely zero (suspicious). There were a couple ticky-tack calls, but we have those in every game. There was one play, with the wrong number (called), but there was no pattern. If I said we're looking at these referees being corrupt, you would have no idea which one it would be. And if I told you which one, you could not say which (team) he was favoring."
The only way that this will ever be fully resolved is if Donaghy or someone else who was involved in this sits down with the FBI or the NBA and explains exactly what was happening in each game--what bets were made and what, if anything, Donaghy did to slant things in favor of the people who placed those bets. I'm not sure that a "smoking gun" is going to be found on video without someone who was in on the plot telling the investigators what to look for and where to find it. As Whitworth said to Feigin, "If you are the FBI, you have absolutely nothing that comes close to saying Tim Donaghy is a rogue referee. In those two games, that's as good as I've seen him referee. I would have given good scores. They'll have to look at every game and see not only calls but enough to know why those calls were made."
posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM