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Thursday, February 21, 2019

ESPN Attempts to Revive the Tim Donaghy Scandal

ESPN has published a very lengthy piece about disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, and has made the very inflammatory declaration that their story explains how Donaghy "conspired to fix NBA games." There is a saying that applies equally to science and to the law: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Just because something may seem plausible when viewed in a certain way does not make it true, or likely to be true, or even admissible in a court of law. Much has been made of the size of the ESPN article but an article's length should not be construed to signify its depth: a 10 line poem can be profound and deep, while a 10,000 word article can be superficial and shallow.

The factual background concerning the allegation that Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games is that the federal government and the NBA conducted separate, independent investigations and could not prove this to be the case. Donaghy pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to transmit wagering information. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. In an attempt to draw attention away from himself, and perhaps get a lighter sentence, Donaghy alleged to the court that the NBA conspired to alter the outcomes of various games--including the much-discussed game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, a game that Donaghy did not officiate--but no proof was ever presented or discovered to support that allegation.

After Donaghy made the accusation about the league conspiring to fix multiple games, I wrote that the NBA should publicly release the grades for the three referees from game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Does the NBA classify that as a well-officiated game or a poorly officiated game? How did each of the controversial calls grade out? Such transparency would be welcome. The closest that the NBA has come to doing this came within the Pedowitz Report, which contained the findings of an independent investigation conducted in the wake of the Donaghy scandal; Pedowitz' team broke down game six in great detail and concluded that, while the game was poorly officiated, there was no evidence that the officiating was biased in favor of the Lakers.

When the Donaghy case first became publicized, then NBA Commissioner David Stern publicly stated that Donaghy had graded highly as a referee. That may be true but it is also worth noting that Donaghy never officiated in the NBA Finals--which is where the highest graded referees go--and he did not officiate a large number of playoff games. It would be helpful if the NBA released the data concerning how Donaghy graded out.

It is difficult to reconcile the conflicting notions that (1) Donaghy was objectively a good referee and (2) Donaghy deliberately made incorrect calls and/or incorrect non-calls in order to change the outcomes of games. How could both statements be true? That would be quite a tightrope act., to figure out how to influence the outcome of games by generally making calls that favor one side, but doing so predominantly on calls that are so close in nature that no matter which way they went they would not be graded as incorrect. If the NBA has objective data that shows that Donaghy did not make an unusual number of bad calls/non-calls, that data could put to rest any notion that Donaghy fixed games.

The ESPN article does not present much new information, and the new information that it presents does not prove anything; just counting the number of foul calls that went for or against one team is not meaningful without supplying context concerning time, score, playing style/philosophy of both teams, individual matchups/mismatches, etc. Is it unusual that one team was whistled for x number of fouls in a row? Maybe yes, maybe no. It may be "statistically significant" in the sense that a coin flip would not be expected to generate x number of heads or tails in a row but that statistical significance does not prove that a certain official made those calls to change the outcome of that game.

Other than the number crunching--and the NBA disputes the conclusions that ESPN drew from the number crunching--the rest of the ESPN article primarily consists of statements about Donaghy from dead people, anonymous people and/or convicted criminals. Little if anything in that article that was not already presented in court would be admissible in a court of law. The ESPN article does not prove how Donaghy allegedly conspired to fix games but it presents a scenario that may or may not be true about how he could have conspired to fix games.

Do I believe that Donaghy fixed games? It is certainly possible, and that possibility is very disturbing to me as a lifelong NBA fan who loves pure athletic competition. That which we know Donaghy did is bad enough, and a black eye for him and for the league that did not figure this out sooner. If he fixed games, that is awful; if he is right that the league fixed games and that many referees were involved, that would make me incredibly sad.

However, more than a decade after Donaghy's illegal activity was discovered, there is no smoking gun, no proof that he did more than bet on games that he officiated and provide inside information to gamblers. The league would have everything to lose and nothing to gain by conspiring to fix games; the NBA has been booming financially for decades, and changing the outcome of a few games is not going to provide enough financial upside to cover against the huge downside of getting caught committing such a crime. If it were proven that the NBA fixed games, that would be the end of the league.

I agree with one assertion in the ESPN article: the advent of widespread, legalized betting on NBA games opens up the potential for a large number of problems; as the ESPN writer noted, citing some research done on this issue, the more money that is added to this situation the greater the likelihood for wrongdoing and scandal. Just look at the recent Anthony Davis melodram; is he going to play, is he not going to play, is he going to play hard, is the team going to play him in the fourth quarter--there are numerous ways for one or more unscrupulous parties to manipulate the point spreads for New Orleans' Pelicans' games. Then you have the issue of rest (or "load management," the new catchphrase for sitting out otherwise healthy players), not to mention the issue of tanking. What if someone is able to get the inside scoop about which stars are going to rest for which games, or which teams decided to tank 10 games before the general public could tell that those teams are tanking? The NBA's recent embrace of widespread legalized gambling is fraught with peril.

It has been interesting for me to look back on my coverage of the Donaghy scandal. When the Donaghy story first broke in the summer of 2007, I was several years away from even considering going to law school; now, I am several years removed from graduating law school, passing the bar and being a licensed attorney. So, understandably, I view the Donaghy story--at least in terms of the legal aspects concerning burden of proof and other issues--through a different prism than I did when I was a journalist who did not have any formal legal training. That being said, when I review what I wrote at that time--see the links below--I stand by my coverage; I grasped the issues and I raised pertinent questions without jumping to conclusions or succumbing to unsupported speculation.

The ESPN story is a page-turning drama but it does not provide any new facts or evidence, just speculation. I am not naive enough to say that there is no way that Donaghy was fixing games but I would be interested to hear an explanation for how he could grade out at least adequately while also deliberately making enough bad calls/non-calls to fix the outcome (or cover the point spread) of multiple games for a period of several years.

20 Second Timeout's Coverage of the Tim Donaghy Story:

New York Post Reports that an NBA Referee is Under Investigation for Fixing NBA Games (July 20, 2007)

Some Questions to Consider About the Tim Donaghy Case (July 21, 2007)

David Stern Sheds Some Light on the Tim Donaghy Investigation  (July 24, 2007)

Tim Donaghy's Media Guide Bio Contains Discrepancies (July 26, 2007)

How Hard is it to Detect Crooked Officiating? (July 28, 2007)

Are Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell Really the Best Authorities on Refereeing? (July 31, 2007)

What is the Purpose of a Basketball Blog?  (August 2, 2007)

Ric Bucher Says that the NBA's Officiating Problems Go a Lot Deeper than Tim Donaghy (August 5, 2007)

The Other Shoe Set to Drop in Donaghy Case (August 15, 2007)

Donaghy Pleads Guilty to Two Felonies, Faces Up to 25 Years in Prison (August 15, 2007)

When Donaghy Starts Singing Will 20 NBA Referees be Sent Dancing? (August 18, 2007)
Tim Donaghy's Tales (June 12, 2008)

Donaghy Sentenced, Key Questions Remain Unresolved (July 30, 2008)

Pedowitz Report Implicates Only Donaghy but Recommends Several Changes to NBA Officiating Program (October 2, 2008)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM



At Thursday, February 21, 2019 1:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

"If the NBA has objective data that shows that Donaghy did not make an unusual number of bad calls/non-calls, that data could put to rest any notion that Donaghy fixed games."

I totally disagree. It takes maybe, what, two to three calls or non-calls to change the outcome of a game? Let's say he fixed two or three games a year. Do you really think 7 or 8 extra bad calls would show up in their numbers over that long of a sample size? Especially if Donaghy is generally rated by the league as a "good" ref I imagine at worst that would only knock him down to "pretty good."

We'll never know for sure if Donaghy was fixing games-- or at least, shaving points-- but to me it has always seemed more likely than not; he had motive, opportunity, and infrastructure, and has proven himself (by his own admission) to be a greedy, dishonest man willing to exploit his position for illegal personal gain. That alone is not enough in the court of law but that does not mean it isn't or shouldn't be enough in the court of opinion.

As for whether or not the NBA has fixed games, I think that's largely a separate issue. If they have, I suspect it was only once or twice--and yeah, 2002 would be a good candidate-- where they stood to make a lot more money by protecting a big market franchise over a little one. It seems reasonably clear to me that they're pretty comfortable fixing the lottery, so it's certainly not out of the question, but I'd at least like to believe they leave the games alone.

At Thursday, February 21, 2019 1:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Maybe “put to rest” is too strong but if Donaghy consistently graded well then it would be hard to believe he was fixing games. The ESPN article suggests that Donaghy fixed many games, not two or three per season.

At Thursday, February 21, 2019 7:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I would agree that it would be difficult to fix many games per season and that it is unlikely he did so. A hypothetical crooked referee could pretty easily make six or seven figures a year strategically fixing 2-4 particular games per season which strikes me as much more likely.


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