Examining the Specter of Fixed Games after the NBA’s Tim Donaghy Scandal

Ex-NBA Ref Tim Donaghy - NBA Logo

For fans of the National Basketball Association (NBA), villains are all part of the spectacle.

L.A. Lakers fans might have loved him, but Kobe Bryant was Public Enemy #1 in 29 other NBA arenas during his storied career. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has become infamous for his icy staredowns during the halftime interview. And in his quest to win a coveted title, Kevin Durant embraced the dark side like a modern-day Darth Vader.

But in the annals of professional basketball, no villain has wrought as much destruction and damage to the NBA’s reputation than Tim Donaghy.

The son of a revered NBA official, Donaghy grew up destined to referee the biggest show in basketball. And in 1994, as a fresh-faced 27-year old, he embraced his legacy by entering for his first season as a professional ref.

For the next decade, Donaghy lived a dual existence – reffing NBA action by day and illegally betting on sports by night. Because sports betting outside of Nevada was still illegal, Donaghy’s sports betting habit meant he did business with mob-connected underground bookies.

Soon enough, Donaghy made the disastrous decision to add NBA games to the menu, and by 2003, he was helping his mob buddies make millions betting on his own games.

Recapping the Dark Days of Tim Donaghy

The Donaghy scandal broke in 2007 when the New York Post published a report detailing the FBI’s investigation of an NBA ref.

It didn’t take long for Donaghy’s name to be linked to that reporting, which found that the ref was betting on his own games in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Within a month, Donaghy pled guilty in federal court to charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting wagering information through interstate commerce.

At the time, Donaghy contended that he never fixed games, with his involvement limited to passing along insider information about players and refs to his associates.

One year after the original article hit newsstands, Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.

In February of 2019, reporter Scott Eden of ESPN unearthed new revelations about Donaghy’s dirty work in a piece titled “How Former Ref Tim Donaghy Conspired to Fix NBA Games.”

Eden quotes an anonymous professional gambler who approached Donaghy after the latter was released from prison to ask exactly how the ref engineered winners. This bettor happened to be on the wrong end of several Donaghy games, and after discussing things with the disgraced former official, he quickly learned why:

“‘He said he liked to call an illegal defense call, right away, in the first minute.’
That way, the gambler said, Donaghy could force the side he’d picked against to play a little less aggressively on defense.
‘He said he’d pick on the big center, or the most valuable player of each team, and he’d try to get them in foul trouble.”

But the explosive article wasn’t reliant on anonymous tipsters alone…

Eden spent two years digging into Donaghy’s past, a process that involved interviewing over 100 individuals including current and ex-refs, NBA employees both past and present, professional gamblers, underground bookies and Nevada sportsbook operators, attorneys, law enforcement personnel, and Donaghy’s friends and relatives.

The reporter pored over thousands of pages of paperwork, while taking the time to watch and log every play Donaghy officiated during the 2006-07 season before comparing that data to corresponding point spread movement.

Despite this apparent foundation, however, the NBA issued a sternly worded and thorough rebuttal to seemingly every assertion Eden made. Per the league’s official statement.

“The ESPN Article attempts to revive this old story. Unfortunately, it is replete with errors, beginning with its statement that the Pedowitz Report ‘concluded that Donaghy, in fact, did not fix games.’
The Pedowitz Report made no such conclusion.  Rather, the investigation found no basis to disagree with the finding of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that “[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.”
ESPN ignores this important distinction. The new material that ESPN has assembled to support its own conclusion that Donaghy manipulated games is not strong and adds little to the existing record.”

The statement goes on to provide numerous examples that show Eden’s sourcing and research methods were lacking at best.

Game Fixing in Other Major Sports

The threat of match-fixing isn’t limited to the NBA by any means, and in fact, the smaller leagues and associations are even more vulnerable.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is routinely plagued by match-fixing scandals throughout its lowest rungs on the tour’s ladder.

But in January of 2019, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper published a bombshell report alleging match-fixing at the highest levels of pro tennis. Per the report, Spain’s Guardia Civil police arrested 15 people with 68 others under investigation. Of that group, 28 were pro tennis players, including one who competed in the 2018 U.S. Open.

Additionally, 11 houses were raided for evidence, with seizures including high-end cars, weapons, and $192,000 in cash.

Spain’s Guardia Civil issued a state describing how the tennis pros were “muscled” into fixing matches:

“A group of Armenian individuals used a professional player who served as the link between them and the other members of the network.
Once the bribe had been paid, the Armenians headed for the match venues to use their overwhelming muscle to make sure that the player kept their end of the deal.
They then gave the order for bets to be laid both nationally and internationally.”

According to the European Union (EU) law enforcement group Europol, nearly 100 matches played on the lower-tier Futures and Challenger tours were confirmed to be fixed.

Fred Lord – who serves as director of anti-corruption for the International Centre of Sport Security in Qatar – told the BBC why tennis’ status as a relatively obscure sport betting market makes it the perfect setting for unscrupulous activity:

“Having that insider knowledge of people involved in match-fixing in a specific sport – particularly tennis – you can really make some fairly decent money.
We’re talking figures around about half a million euros.”

How the Leagues Responded to Donaghy Mess

In the immediate aftermath of the FBI’s investigation coming to light, then NBA Commissioner David Stern tried to run damage control.

In a press release, Stern pledged to devote the league’s full array of resources to investigate its officials and any suspected sports betting violations:

“We would like to assure our fans that no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared to assist in this investigation, to bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports, and to take the necessary steps to protect against this ever happening again.”

Shortly thereafter, the NBA hired former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz to conduct a comprehensive review of the league’s referee operations department. Fourteen months and millions of dollars later, Pedowitz returned with a 133-page document laying out several recommendations to address the specter of game fixing.

Among the improvements requested in the Pedowitz Report were a dedicated hotline for fans, bookies, or bettors to leave anonymous tips about suspected foul play, and making any legitimate complaints available to both teams before that official worked their game. Pedowitz also directed the NBA to more strictly monitor off-court contacts between officials and players or team personnel.

In addition, complying with all of Pedowitz’ guidance points, Stern and the NBA instituted their own measures to eradicate match-fixing. One of those shifts concerned when the league posts officiating assignments for each game, information that is now made available just 90 seconds before tipoff.

In a second statement made during a conference call held to address the Pedowitz Report, Stern vowed to make the NBA as immune to match-fixing as any major professional sport can possibly be:

“We will be up there with the very best. No one will have a better system than we do.
But all of that said, to the idea that, you know, criminal activity will exist every place else in the world except in sports is just something that we can’t guarantee.
But we’re going to have the most effective possible system that’s ever been devised.”

The NBA hasn’t endured a second match-fixing scandal since the Donaghy debacle, so the measures enacted by Stern, and continued by his successor Adam Silver, seem to be working well enough.

Nonetheless, NBA higher-ups aren’t content to let the public believe its on-court product was actually compromised by Donaghy’s calls. After the aforementioned ESPN story was published, the NBA directly refuted much of the reporting in question.
As a result of this stalemate, the question of whether Tim Donaghy simply bet on his own NBA games, or made calls to influence the outcome, remains a matter of personal perception.


Match fixing is the ultimate taboo for organized athletics, and major pro leagues like the NBA represent the pinnacle for aspiring criminals looking for that coveted sure thing. We may never know how Donaghy’s desire to bet on basketball affected his impartiality on the hardwood.

With that being said, even if he called every play straight up, the ruined ref’s decision to place wagers on games he was involved in – or any NBA game for that matter – continues to cast a lasting cloud over the entire league.

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