NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Another Black Eye for League
by Trevor Whenham - 07/25/2007
I would not want to be David Stern right now. The NBA commissioner is in a very ugly position as he is forced to deal with the scandal involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy and the massive implications of it. As I'm sure most sports bettors and handicappers have, I've closely followed the story since it broke to understand the scope of it and what it means. Before sitting down to write this article I wanted to wait until Stern broke his silence yesterday morning at a press conference. That event left me very unsatisfied.
Though I'm not naive enough to have expected Stern to have bared his soul and laid the whole situation out, I was disappointed that he seemed to bury his head in the sand and pretend he knew nothing and that this was an isolated incident. He seemed to say that this was just a rogue individual who acted independently, and that Donaghy was an aberration in an otherwise sound system. That's way more simplistic of an explanation than I was hoping for. I'm not saying that all referees are crooked, but I don't see how Stern can say with certainty that Donaghy was the only one. After all, he allegedly had no idea what was going on in this case until the FBI came to him in June.
From a betting perspective, this is obviously a major story. The credibility of the league is damaged, and it remains to be seen if it can be repaired. You would never go into a casino and play at a slot machine if it was rigged so that you could never win the jackpot (if you're a smart bettor then you would probably stay away from something as ridiculous and unprofitable as a slot machine altogether, but that's a different story), so why would you want to place your money on a game in which the results could be predetermined, or more accurately, if you can't be sure that there isn't a preferred outcome? With so many other betting choices available, the NBA will have to do a lot in a hurry to remedy their problems, or bettors could, and probably should, stay away from the league in droves.
By now you are probably familiar with the situation, and if you aren't then information is easy to find because it is everywhere. Instead, I wanted to gather a few thoughts I have had on the situation:
--It's disturbing how relatively easy it would be to pull this kind of thing off if a ref wants to. It all comes down to fouls. A foul shot is a chance to put points on the board without burning any time off the clock. If a ref wants to see more points scored so that a game can go over a total he can be more aggressive in calling fouls so that the teams head to the line earlier and more often. Letting borderline fouls go uncalled can keep the score lower. It's not just totals than can be called into question, though. A team can be put at a significant disadvantage if a star is put into early foul trouble and has to sit out more than he normally would. Cleveland, for example, is not nearly as hard to beat if LeBron James is riding the pine. A ref doesn't even have to target a particular player. If he starts aggressively calling defensive fouls early on then the defense will be forced to be less aggressive and scores can climb higher. As long as a referee is reasonably careful and subtle, it is not at all hard to believe that something like this was possible.
--That being said, the most startling part of this story is that no one - sportsbooks, handicappers, the league - saw this coming. There are some compelling stats that have emerged since the story broke - Donaghy went from a consistent under ref to a consistent over one, and significant line moves were correct at an incredible rate. There are also anecdotal incidents that have emerged - a non-call in a Warriors game that stopped the Bulls from taking a late and likely insurmountable lead, for example. Despite that, there was no significant buzz anywhere that Donaghy was on the take. Anyone that concludes that Donaghy's number clearly show that he is cheating either doesn't understand what the numbers mean, or just wants to be heard now that people are listening. Sure, some of his numbers seem a little off in hindsight, but he's a referee, and refereeing is a highly subjective job. Didn't refs have diffrent styles, and teams don't always adjust well to the changes in officials from game to game. If you are saying that you could know that Donaghy was cheating based on his statistics, then you would have to say the same thing about half of the refs in the league - their stats don't make perfect sense in all ways, either. Donaghy is human, and humans are far from perfect.
--There are several reasons why it wasn't obvious. First of all, he or whoever was telling him what to do weren't stupid enough to affect every game or to do it in the same way each time. His games went over more often, but there were still refs who went over more than him, and there are refs, including the controversial Joey Crawford, who are more likely to go under than Donaghy was to go over. He never did enough to be suspicious. Besides that, Donaghy didn't officiate games alone, so it would take some real detective work to assign any irregularities solely to him unless you were looking for them. Finally, everyone blames the ref in any situation where something goes wrong, but until now there was little impetus to actually investigate them to see if your whining had any validity.
--Stern has talked tough about how this is isolated and it won't happen again. He has to say that, but I can't necessarily believe him. It took a long time for this to get uncovered, and when it was it wasn't because of Donaghy's actions on the court, so a more sophisticated operation could go undetected for a long time. There is so much data generated by basketball games, and it takes such small changes to outcomes to make gigantic profits that it could be almost impossible to detect this kind of thing just by studying the data. It may seem obvious at first glance in this case, or at least that is what the experts are saying on the radio and T.V., but the truth is that if it were obvious it would have been uncovered. Every game Donaghy officiated was evaluated by the league, as it is for every official, and nothing out of the order was uncovered. He was seen as a decent, accurate ref. Besides, if a sports bettor were to uncover suspicious activity it would be in their best interest to bet on it and profit from it than report it.
--As a Canadian I am continually amazed how the American Congress gets involved in everything. I fear that in this case, because the obvious target would be legalized gambling on sports. Banning or restricting that would be the worst thing that could happen. This didn't happen because you can bet on games online or in casinos. It happened because it is too hard or too inconvenient for many people to do either of those things. If Donaghy had have been betting with a casino instead of an illegal bookie then he wouldn't have gotten in this trouble. Casinos probably wouldn't have extended him as much credit as he got, and they certainly wouldn't have had him fix games if he couldn't pay off what he owed. Legal sports betting is part of the solution to this problem, not the cause.
There is really only one thing you can say to sum up this situation - What a mess!