The NBA would like us all to forget about disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy and the gambling scandal that rocked the league.
Which is exactly why we are going to remember it.
Donaghy, who wrote a book about his experience more than a decade ago, is talking again. This time he participated in a documentary — “Operation Flagrant Foul” — which is streaming on Netflix. In the opening minutes of the documentary, after the NBA is asked for a comment, the league responds: “Tim Donaghy is a convicted felon. … There is no basis now to revisit any of this.”
Whenever people in positions of power tell you that, it means just the opposite. Let’s revisit it.
Donaghy, you’ll remember, was the NBA referee who was at the center of a huge gambling scandal in 2007 that cast real (further) doubt on the integrity of the NBA. As any sports aficionado knows, the sports world freaks out whenever a player, coach or official gambles on games precisely for that reason — it compromises the belief that the competition is fair.
The NFL suspended wide receiver Calvin Ridley indefinitely this year for betting on NFL games, a punishment that surpassed even the 11-game suspension of quarterback Deshaun Watson for two dozen cases of sexual assault. Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox were banned for life for fixing Major League Baseball games. Superstars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended by the NFL for the entire 1963 season for betting on games.
Anyway, the NBA hit the panic button when Donaghy’s crime was uncovered; the league just wanted it to go away already. Donaghy went away, all right, serving 11 months of a 15-month prison sentence. He had accepted money from a professional gambler in exchange for inside tips and made bets on games, some in which he officiated.
With all that behind him, Donaghy is speaking out again, pulling the curtain back on the league and the way it works. You can’t watch the documentary and not believe that the league is less than honest, as well. The NBA shares blame for creating situations that make it vulnerable to manipulation by the officials with its uneven enforcement of its own rules. And if Donaghy is to be believed, many of the fans’ worst suspicions about the league are true.
Fans have frequently accused the league of favoring stars in the way games are called; it does, says Donaghy.
Fans have accused referees of makeup calls and, worse, making calls to thwart certain players; they do, says Donaghy.
Fans have charged that referees have personal agendas and are willfully inconsistent; they do and they are, says Donaghy.
Donaghy details how referees took revenge on star guard Allen Iverson. Iverson had threatened referee Steve Javie during the 2006-07 season. The league fined the player $25,000, but the other referees were upset that there was no suspension.
According to Donaghy, they called a series of “palming” violations — dribbling from the bottom half of the ball, which allows him to carry it and cover more court. While it is a rule, it is rarely enforced, but that night it was used against Iverson. Here’s the point: Why doesn’t the NBA always enforce that rule? Why leave it open to interpretation and something that referees can use for their own agenda? Same goes for the rule of verticality and other variations of traveling violations, which are applied inconsistently, if at all.
In the documentary, Donaghy cites a vivid example. He says the league decided to crack down on a certain spin move by calling it a traveling violation. One night Donaghy made that very call — on Michael Jordan. As Donaghy tells it, “Phil Jackson (Jordan’s coach) comes flying off the bench and he starts giving me (expletive). And I say, wait a second, Phil, you know as well as I do that’s the spin move that they’re telling us to call, and he said, ‘They may want that play called, but they certainly don’t want it called on him.’ Later, in the locker room, another referee told Donaghy, ‘They want that call, but don’t call it on him.’”
Says Donaghy, “When (commissioner) David Stern structured the league we as officials knew that it was better to treat the star players better than others. I just wanted to be the best referee and advance up the ladder and I saw the way guys that were in the NBA Finals handled the game. They didn’t call fouls against the stars, and they were well respected. These (fans) that pay thousands of dollars to sit courtside here, they didn’t come here to see Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal sit on the bench. They came to see them play. The league’s your boss, and you want them to think you’re doing a good job because if that’s the case you’re on that playoff roster that comes out. With that is an enormous amount of more money and respect.”
Donaghy says fans should maintain a dose of skepticism about the league. He told USA Today, “I was in the inner workings of it for 14 years and I saw what we were going to do and how star players were treated, and it was different, depending on what was on the front and back of jerseys. And the rules weren’t enforced as they were written in the rulebook. I saw it then, and I still see it now.”
The irony is that in recent years, the NBA has embraced — of all things — gambling, looking for yet more revenue. The league, which once abhorred any connection to gambling, has created partnerships with several gambling businesses — among them, MGM Resorts, which owns casinos throughout the country, theScore, Sportradar and various media outlets that will provide access to NBA data for bettors and sportsbooks. “It’s hard to believe that you couldn’t place a legal wager on sports less than a decade ago unless you were in Nevada,” writes Roger Wright in Versus Sports … “Things have changed so drastically that NBA teams now entertain the idea of a sportsbook within their premises.”
The league is trying to bury the Donaghy mess on one hand while embracing gambling with the other. Money talks, but it remains to be seen if, after all these years of trying to keep its distance from gambling, it can avoid the pitfalls in which the league found itself in the Donaghy business.