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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Some Questions to Consider About the Tim Donaghy Case

More information is sure to become publicly known about the Tim Donaghy case in the next few days and weeks but here are some of the questions that I am wondering about:

1) How exactly could one referee on a crew of three make enough bad calls to affect a point spread without getting caught quickly?

Keep in mind that in addition to the watchful eyes of his two partners, Donaghy (and every other NBA official) was subject to extensive monitoring/grading of every call (and non-call) from the games that he officiated. I would be very interested to learn the logistics of what in fact Donaghy is specifically accused of doing and how the NBA graded his performance in the games in question; I'm not saying that all of this information will ever be released but it would be fascinating to look over.

2) As a corollary to the first question, is there some flaw/problem in the grading process that enables a referee to have enough leeway to make point spread altering calls without being detected?

It's possible that any alleged "bad" calls came on plays that contain a certain amount of gray area or leeway and that in a given game Donaghy made more "gray area" calls in favor of one team than another.

3) Were other referees acting in concert with Donaghy?

Of course, if Donaghy had accomplices then it would be easier for him to affect the point spread and/or outcome of a game but it still is not clear how he would have avoided detection during the grading process.

4) Was Donaghy in fact grading poorly in the NBA's evaluation system and perhaps on his way out of the league before the FBI nailed him?

Donaghy has never worked an NBA Finals game, so he clearly was not grading out among the very best officials. He worked a few playoff games this year.

5) How did Donaghy get so deeply in debt to mafia connected figures without NBA security officials knowing about it?

Referees' itineraries are supposed to be closely monitored and they are obviously not supposed to be gambling at all, let alone associating with underworld figures, so it is hard to understand how Donaghy got himself so deeply in trouble without the NBA knowing about it. I wonder if the NBA had some idea of what was going on but was forbidden by the FBI from acting against him until the FBI built up whatever case it is trying to make against not just Donaghy but whatever mob figures they are trying to bring down. While Donaghy is the NBA's primary concern in this matter, the FBI is probably trying to nail a prominent mobster; perhaps if the NBA tipped its hand regarding Donaghy that would have compromised the FBI's investigation. Obviously, I am just speculating here, but I just cannot comprehend how this could have gone on for two seasons without the NBA realizing it.

In recent years, the NBA has been much more vigorous about cracking down on traveling violations, "superstar" calls and other inconsistencies that used to annoy purists. The institution of videotape review and the improvement of the grading process were supposed to weed out the incompetent referees. For obvious reasons, the NBA has never made public exactly how its officials grade out. One can make some educated guesses about this based on which referees have retired/been released in recent years and which referees get the most playoff assignments/Finals games. One thing that may happen as a result of the Donaghy case is that the NBA may start making public at least some parts of the grading process. Clearly, many fans will be clamoring for the NBA to clean up this situation and, just as importantly, to prove that the situation has been cleaned up.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:19 AM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 5:36:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Regarding the first questions, there's a point that has me interested: it has been reported among other things that Donaghy worked in cahoots with the gamblers, and focused on specific games which were to have a final spread.

What if the game selected doesn't have enough "judgement calls" in the last couple minutes or so for the ref to dictate the final point spread? Wouldn't that force Donaghy to go out on a limb relatively often and make obvious bad calls to get the prearranged result?

If mobsters had such an ascendancy over a NBA ref, I doubt they'd accept an explanation like "you win some you lose some".

 
At Saturday, July 21, 2007 6:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Exactly. That's my point. How specifically did this alleged scheme work? As I alluded to in my questions, it is not clear to me how this would reliably work, nor how this could be done without being detected pretty quickly. There has to be more to this story than has come out so far.

 
At Saturday, July 21, 2007 10:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are great questions, and I hope the details are eventually reported. My guess is that the mobsters really did have to accept an explanation like "you win some you lose some." If they were smart about it, that's what they'd do. It seems like it would be pretty easy to shade the spread toward one team, just by calling two or three "gray area" calls the same way, calling the rest of the game as you see it, and not focusing that tightly on the final result. Especially if the ref didn't do that every night, and didn't always favor the same team, or the home team, or follow some other easily recognizable pattern, it would be very difficult to detect -- though it might pull down his grading somewhat. That doesn't offer a "lock" for bettors, but it gives them a very large statistical advantage in their bets over multiple games. I'm guessing the mobsters took a long term view -- aiming to win their bets at, say, a 60-65% rate. That's a huge advantage, and if it can be ensured over many, many games, it's much better than having a 90% chance of winning for a couple of games before your ref gets caught.

But this is all just speculation, of course. Hopefully we'll find out the facts.

-Don

 
At Saturday, July 21, 2007 3:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I think that some of the answers to my questions will have to come out in order for the case to be successfully prosecuted; the government will have to explain exactly how Donaghy fixed games/point spreads--unless they have on dead to rights on a wiretap admitting the deed and he decides to plea bargain rather than going to trial. Either way, you can bet that the NBA is actively trying to answer the questions that I posed and many others as well.

It really is amazing how things can change over night. This case and how the NBA responds to it may very well define David Stern's legacy as commissioner--either enhancing his already good reputation as perhaps the best commissioner in sports or leaving a black mark if the NBA does not find a way to restore public confidence in the integrity of the league.

 
At Sunday, July 22, 2007 12:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting tidbit from Alan Schwarz's NYT piece today:

"... a game in which a major line shift was followed by a favorable outcome for bettors in that direction could be evidence of wrongdoing, assuming that no complicating factors like a star’s injury were involved.

According to data obtained from a Las Vegas company, whose owner requested anonymity because he had been contacted by people involved with the Donaghy investigation, Donaghy refereed in 11 games after Jan. 1, 2007, in which the consensus Las Vegas line moved 2 points or more. The team on which bettors wagered heavily enough to move the line that far won 7 of those 11 games.

A 7-4 record would not be compelling to a statistician, who would consider the good possibility of that happening randomly. But Jimmy Vaccaro, the chief oddsmaker for American Wagering, which runs 60 sports books across Nevada, said that such performance would leave any gambler giddy.

“It’s too early to say anything definitive about this situation,” he said, “but if you win 7 out of 11, more than 60 percent, you’d be a billionaire in about a year.”"

-don

 
At Sunday, July 22, 2007 7:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

That is very interesting and very disturbing. It still does not answer the question of how Donaghy was able to do this without getting caught sooner. The NBA has prided itself in recent years on the thoroughness of how it grades its officials. One would hope that anyone who is making bad calls, whether through incompetence or because of deliberately fixing games/point spreads, would be discovered quickly. That is why I speculated that maybe the NBA was on to Donaghy but the FBI prevented the league from moving until the FBI could complete its case against whichever mob figures it is pursuing. That of course would be small consolation to people who lost legal wagers on those games and to the fans of the losing teams.

 
At Monday, July 23, 2007 3:29:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I did not agree fully with Bill Simmons' column on the subject, but he made an interesting point: a side note in all this was a reference that Donaghy informed bettors of ref assignments before they were made public.

If this was indeed the kind of information mobsters pay good money for, it would mean that ref assignments have a definite influence on the outcome of games, and possibly that the NBA itself could be using it to extend playoff series or bail out big teams.

A crooked ref is a problem. A league that sends recognized homers to specific big games would be disastrous. I am not a big fan of conspirations, but this one had me worried.

 
At Monday, July 23, 2007 5:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This story is just going to keep getting uglier and uglier. It is still a reach, though, to leap from one allegedly corrupt ref to a conclusion that the NBA itself is fixing games and/or playoff series. Until further information comes out, the key questions are how exactly did Donaghy do what he is alleged to have done, were other referees involved and how is it possible that this went unnoticed when the NBA is supposedly charting every call and every non-call in every game? There is still no reason to believe that the NBA itself, as an organization, is involved in any conspiracy. Certain officials may be known for calling a certain style of game--more physical or less physical, for instance--and that may be why bettors would value such information. A referee who is known for letting more contact go--within the guidelines of proper officiating--may be perceived as more favorable to, say, the Spurs. Just because bettors perceive this does not mean that it is necessarily true, either. Donaghy could have been giving out more significant information, though, like which players are injured, etc.

 
At Tuesday, July 24, 2007 12:40:00 PM, Anonymous Bole said...

Regarding Post #1: Multiple bets could have been made, betting on teams and over's/unders (more overs cause its easier to control by creating fouls and going to the free throw line without wasting time) woulda made it alot easier to win atleast one if not two bets and make more money more effectively.

Sorry didnt read everything maybe someone already said this.

 
At Tuesday, July 24, 2007 3:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

That's possible but if multiple bets are made on the same game then couldn't those bets potentially cancel each other out? More than the betting strategy, though, I am interested in the logistics of how Donaghy or anyone else could do what he is alleged to have done without being quickly caught--or at least suspected heavily enough to be taken off of games or start receiving poor ratings as an official.

 

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