The worst job in the world this week? Pro sports commissioner. The NFL’s Roger Goodell has to deal with Michael Vick and his rape stand. Bud Selig has to suffer through the Barry Bonds traveling road show. And the NBA’s David Stern? He wishes that all he had to worry about was a dogfighter and a juicer.
As Sam Eifling wrote in Slate four years ago, the NBA has always provided ample fodder for conspiracy theorists. Basketball fans have long debated whether Stern fixes the results of the draft lottery from his Madison Avenue aerie, or if he hands out refereeing assignments based on which team the league wants to win. For a skeptic, that kind of talk sounds like the delusional ranting of an overinvested fan. Dark, mysterious forces control the fate of the Dallas Mavericks? Really? But last week we learned that the paranoiacs weren’t completely crazy. Somebody was pulling the strings in the NBA—alas, it was a shlubby ref with a gambling problem, not David Stern.
The extent of Tim Donaghy’s nefariousness will come out over the coming days. The most important questions: What games did he affect, how much money was involved—and most crucial for the league’s recovery—were other referees on the take? Basketball’s whirling nature, with its delicious combination of agility and contact, makes it one of the most subjective and difficult games to officiate. But there are three referees on the floor during each NBA game, not to mention an NBA department that rigorously grades each official in the league’s employ. Considering all that, can a single referee, acting alone, swing a game or playoff series?
I put that question to Al Raya, who runs a training academy called the Midwest Referee School. One ref can change the outcome of a game “with any number of controversial calls,” Raya says. “That makes it tough on his crew, though, and during timeouts or after the game, the other refs would definitely ask, What are you seeing that we’re not?” It does seem likely that Donaghy’s fellow officials had no idea about his financial problems—according to Raya, referees on the same crew aren’t nearly as tight as, say, partners walking a police beat. Add in the fact that NBA crews work together for only a few games before getting regrouped, and it seems possible that a shady ref could avoid detection by his colleagues.
Even in hindsight, it’s not easy to spot Donaghy’s misbehavior. One game that’s already come under suspicion is Game 3 of May’s Suns-Spurs series, a contest that ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons called “the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far.” But a quick review of the malfeasance on YouTube reveals only one egregious call by Donaghy, a ridiculously late foul on a Manu Ginobili drive that he whistled from about 50 feet away. The only reason that Donaghy doesn’t come off that badly is that his colleagues are just as incompetent. While it seems doubtful that the whole crew had money on the Spurs, it does make you wonder what the NBA’s supervisor of officials actually does. If that kind of performance isn’t enough to earn a public reprimand from the league, I’m not sure what is.
Not only did Donaghy not receive any kind of warning from the NBA, he apparently got an above-average evaluation for the season. The fact that he skated through the league’s grading process seems to indicate that, rather than fix games directly, he worked the margins by shaving points on the over/under line. (The over/under is a bet on whether both teams will score more or less than a given point total. If the over/under is 200, you’ll win an “over” bet if the final score is 101-100. You’ll lose if the score is 100-99.) The New York Post, which broke this story Friday, has provided numbers from Stats LLC pointing to the high number of personal and technical fouls called by Donaghy’s crews. And according to covers.com, which tracks referees’ performances against the various spreads, gamblers betting the over on all 72 of Donaghy’s games would have won 43 times. That’s the third-highest number out of 60 NBA refs.
A careful examination of that record shows Donaghy’s likely pattern. Last year, Donaghy reffed 12 games in which the over/under was 184.5 or less—those games went over 10 out of 12 times, a highly suspicious number. Donaghy games with an over/under above 205 points, however, only went over seven out of 18 times. This makes sense intuitively. In a low-scoring game, a quick whistle would ensure that each team gets enough free throws to sufficiently pad the point total. On the other hand, it’s harder to call enough fouls to ensure an “over” in a game where the Vegas line is already high.
If the NBA spent more time listening to Las Vegas, it probably would’ve known all this two years ago. As USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan points out, “Nevada bookmakers are a clearinghouse for illegal bookies.” Any suspicious bets taken on college campuses or the corner bar get reported back to Vegas sports books, not the local district attorney. Think back to the point-shaving scandal that hit college football this spring. A Vegas oddsmaker thought the betting activity on University of Toledo games looked suspicious. He blew the whistle to the NCAA, and an investigation ultimately revealed Toledo players’ connections to a Michigan gambler. That’s how game-fixing gets snuffed out—usually. But according to Sheridan and professional handicapper R.J. Bell, the NBA is the only major pro sports league that doesn’t stay in regular contact with Vegas about unusual betting activity. “A few years ago the NCAA wanted to abolish gambling on college sports altogether,” Sheridan says. “Now, they are sleeping with Nevada. The NBA just got a wake up call. They need to join us in the 21st century.”
One easy way to prevent flim-flammery would be to eliminate spread betting altogether. Rather than asking bettors to predict whether the favorite will win by more or less than seven points, sports books could simply lay odds that each team would win outright—bet on the underdog and you’d win more, bet on the favorite and you’d win less. In reality, this will never happen. Point spreads exist because they’re an easy way for gambling houses to guarantee an even number of bets on both sides. They also serve as a simple, if imprecise, shorthand to determine the difference between two teams—”the Pistons are favored by seven over the Bulls.” By contrast, money lines—”Detroit -110”—are notoriously hard for the layman to understand. And of course, spread bets tend to keep games alive for gamblers long after the actual contest has been decided—only the betting line has the power to make a 20-point game suspenseful in the fourth quarter.
While it’s doubtful that anything will change in Vegas, the Donaghy scandal should open up a couple of other items for reassessment. In 2003, Rasheed Wallace was suspended for seven games after a postgame confrontation with Donaghy in the bowels of Portland’s Rose Garden. Ever since, Wallace’s technical foul tally has skyrocketed and the burly Pistons forward has earned an unshakable reputation as a surly malcontent. Might our opinion of Wallace change if we learn that he was the recipient of a passel of dubious calls?
Even more intriguing, Donaghy and Wallace were both on the floor during the NBA’s other recent crisis—the night Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson charged into the stands at the Palace. That game took place before Donaghy’s suspected wrongdoing, but there is no question that the refs did a terrible job controlling the on-court action before the mayhem. In the wake of this scandal, every game will be in question, and not only by fans disposed to seeing black helicopters outside the arena. David Stern is often credited with being first among commissioners, but it will take all of his skills to manage this situation. Any misstep, and he’ll find himself in the unthinkable position of envying Bud Selig.