Two-Year Investigation Concludes that Rogue NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Tried to Fix Games for Years

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Updated: February 23, 2019
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More than 10 years after Tim Donaghy was fired (and eventually went to jail) from his job as an NBA referee, new details have surfaced from an ESPN investigation into the gambling ring that sent shockwaves through the professional sports world.

Over a two-year period, ESPN interviewed several people connected with the years-long scheme and concluded that Donaghy would provide a pick for gambling purposes to his associates starting in March 2003. The NBA maintained in its investigation of the scandal that Donaghy only was in collusion with gamblers during the 2006-07 season before he got caught. This story claims that it routinely happened for four years.

The reports say it started small, with Donaghy providing inside information on two or three games in 2003. But, the number of games rose to between 30 and 40 for each of the next four seasons.

Donaghy’s associates would receive the pick in the morning, and then carefully spread their wagers throughout the day so as to not arouse suspicion from sportsbooks.

People were profiting off Donaghy’s picks to the tune of several million dollars. As for the referee, he received $2,000 for each correct pick. That amount was later raised to $5,000. He wasn’t penalized if he made an incorrect pick.

One informant said that Donaghy told him he could influence a game by six points either way, by calling fouls at key times and on key players, to force them to the bench for an extended period of time. He did caution that he couldn’t control the outcome in a game that was a blowout.

According to those in the know, the disparity in foul calls was crystal clear if you knew what to look for.

“You could see he was calling more fouls on the team he bet against and less fouls on the team he bet on,” someone who profited off Donaghy’s picks said. “That was obvious.”

The article cites one particular game in Dallas, where the Mavericks were 12-point favorites over Seattle. Donaghy called one foul against Dallas, versus 12 against the Sonics. At one point when Seattle was within 12 points, Donaghy called six fouls in a row against Seattle. Dallas won the game by 13.

After the FBI became aware of the scheme via someone who had infiltrated one of New York’s famous crime families, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern was notified.  After Donaghy was implicated by the authorities, the FBI says it came up with a plan to have the rogue ref wear a wire and try to catch other officials in the act. But before that plan could be put into action, someone in the league office leaked the story to the New York Post, which ended the undercover investigation.

In 2008, Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Many of his associates also served jail time.

Since the scandal, the NBA has added several measures to ensure that a scandal of such magnitude would not repeat itself. The league now monitors point spreads in all games and investigates patterns if huge bets are placed on a team. The information on the referee crew also used to be disclosed on the morning of a particular game; that news is now released 90 minutes before tip-off. Referees are also subject to more stringent background checks, and during the season their performance is scrutinized to see if there’s any relationship to the number of fouls called with other statistics that could raise red flags as far as gambling is concerned.

The league has had no response to this investigation, but it did claim in a statement given to ESPN that their investigation into games Donaghy called found that foul calls he made fell in line with ones that an unbiased official would make.

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