Donaghy’s Judgment Day Approaches

Steve Rawlins29 July 2008 - 13:03



Coinciding with Tim Donaghy’s meeting in court tomorrow, with a judge who will decide whether or not he serves prison time, a prominent New York gambling therapist has spoken out in support of the vilified NBA referee. In a report submitted just a day before his sentence is determined, Stephen Block’s assessment appears to absolve Donaghy of some of his guilt by claiming that “in short, he could not stop himself from gambling.”

A well respected basketball figure

The scandal surrounding Donaghy started just over a year ago when in July 2007 he strangely announced his retirement as a professional basketball referee. Initially, this news surprised many in the professional basketball circles and drew well wishes from fans and pundits alike as Donaghy had been an ever present figure on the basketball courts. He had refereed games over thirteen NBA seasons from 1994 to 2007 having presiding over 772 normal season games and 20 playoff matches.

The scandal exposed

However, days later it emerged that an FBI investigation involving illegal sports betting had pinned Tim Donaghy as a number one suspect. The two charges that were leveled at Donaghy accused him of betting on games he was calling and then making calls to affect the point spread of these games. On August 15th 2007 Donaghy rocked the National Basketball Association, and officially pleaded guilty to two federal charges.

In with the mob

Evidence uncovered recently has shown that throughout the 2005-06 and 2006-07 NBA season, Donaghy was regularly placing bets well into tens of thousands of dollars and, in a true Hollywood style twist, even held meetings with the mob to discuss working together on a gambling system. In fact, the FBI most likely discovered Donaghy’s involvement in the scams through mobster wire tap operations.


The consequence of Donaghy’s actions sent shockwaves throughout everyone involved in the National Basketball Association, from the fans to the top commissioner of the NBA, David Stern. There has been an influx of fans trying to find recordings of Donaghy-refereed games to see if they were unfairly cheated out of their stakes. Some of the badly called games could even have changed the whole nature of a team’s season.

Block, or offensive foul?

The problem with professional basketball umpiring is that so many calls can be debated one way or the other. Blocking violations can be overturned and ruled offensive fouls and vice versa. Only the players really know how much contact was made. R.J. Bell, a sports gambling specialist took it upon himself to investigate and collate the data from every game Donaghy had referred since 2003.

His findings showed that in every game Donaghy took part in, 57 percent of the time the number of points scored was greater than what the bookmakers had predicted. In contrast, during both the two previous seasons this only occurred at a rate of 44 percent. Consequently some fans have looked to place blame on the NBA for letting this happen since they do have a committee dedicated to spotting such behavior, and the odds of his actions occurring naturally statistically had a 1/10000 chance.

However, Bell has emphasized that there would have been no way one could have seen that Donaghy had ulterior motives while referring. Later reports have shown that the FBI only discovered Donaghy’s gambling behavior by chance while conducting a much wider investigation of organized crime.

Insider information

The specific way Donaghy ran his gambling system was revealed in the U.S. District Court of Judge Carol Bagley Amon. He pleaded guilty to both wire fraud and providing illegal betting information. He admitted to "providing betting recommendations or 'picks' on NBA games, including games he officiated to individuals involved in the business of sports betting." Donaghy revealed that he used secret gestured codes to communicate to those in on the scam the physical condition of players and how he would act towards individual players, thus violating the legal agreement of referees not to disclose the classified information they are privy to as a result of their position.

At the outset Donaghy earned $2,000 for every correct pick but since his predictions were consistently accurate his rate was increased to $5,000 per pick. Aside from the money he won through his own betting, Donaghy managed to earn $30,000 in total by passing on insider information.

Is the problem deeper?

The worrying thing about the Donaghy scandal is that when the disgraced umpire admitted his wrongdoings, he made allegations of deeper, widespread corruption in the NBA. Now that might just be Donaghy acting as a "singing, cooperating witness", as David Stern labeled him, but he might also be right. If there are more corrupt referees out there, they had better get used to their questionable calls being scrutinized somewhat more intensely than usual.

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