Are you ready for FanDuel and Caesar’s Sportsbook commercials during your favorite sporting events to be followed by trailers for the Tim Donaghy story? If not, buckle up, because that is gonna be one helluva dichotomy as the big leagues dive into sports gambling in synchronized tandems, while we get reminded of the wildest sports scandals of the 21st century.
Shaving points and players receiving money to influence the outcomes of games was an issue in 20th century. There was the Black Sox scandal from the 1919 World Series, 1951 CCNY, and 1978-79 Boston College. Scandals like these are why Pete “Charlie Hustle” Rose is has been banned from baseball for over 30 years for betting on baseball despite no evidence of him fixing games, and why Calvin Ridley is suspended for at least one year by the NFL by using one of the legal sports betting apps to place a parlay that included his team, the Atlanta Falcons, to win.
However, there is one moment from the 21st century that threatened to compromise the NBA: The Tim Donaghy scandal. The former referee actually served time in a federal penitentiary for his involvement in a scandal in which he was gambling on games that he was officiating. The New York Daily News’ Stefan Bondy reported that Netflix is working on a documentary about the Donaghy scandal, and the disgraced referee is involved with the film.
Donaghy has always denied fixing games, but that’s not what landed him in prison. He admitted to betting on games in which he officiated, and he pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy to transmit gambling information and was sentenced to 15 months in prison, of which he served 13. The NBA has denied that he fixed games in any way, as well as any accusations made that other referees were involved in with Donaghy or compromised the games in which they officiated.
This controversy comes back into public consciousness every so often and then usually fades away before you can finish reading Donaghy’s Wikipedia page. There was 2009 when he was about to be released from prison and Deadspin’s Tommy Cragg published excerpts from Donaghy’s book that would later be published with the title, Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal that Rocked the NBA. In the book he talks about particular referees’ tendencies, and grudges, and also the culture of NBA officiating. That included some crews making side wagers about which referee would be the first to call an infraction and notices they would receive from the league before games giving notes about what to look for, and what to be sure to call more often — Donaghy accused the league in those notices of trying to influence results. This inside information is how Donaghy claimed to be able to pick games with such accuracy. The book ended up being published by a smaller house, because, according to Craggs’ report, the NBA threatened to sue.
Donaghy would go on, once released, to offer his expertise in officiating at times to Deadspin, analyzing how referees were performing as well as pointing out where some biases might be at play. He was also a featured personality in the 2016 documentary Dirty Games about the ugliness in the business of sports. In 2019 a feature film about Donaghy, Inside Game, was released. Then there was the ESPN report that was published that year.
In that story, titled How former ref Tim Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games, one of the people who author Scott Eden spoke to was the FBI agent that headed up Donaghy’s case. This particular (now retired) FBI investigator, Phil Scala, was one the agency’s lead investigators on the five New York mafia families — Scala was in charge of the agency’s work on the Gambino family. Among the many interesting quotes, anecdotes, and characters in this story Scala stands out, and if this documentary is going to be truly informative and gripping, he had better be in it.
For one, Scala did not buy that Donaghy never fixed any of the games that he worked and bet on. “I said to [Donaghy], ‘Listen, don’t tell me that you have some independent, decision-making ability in your mind’s computer that’s going to be unbiased, because that’s not going to f—-ing happen,” Scala recalled to Eden. “All those gray-area decisions you have to make, Tim? Because you’re betting on the game, your judgment is off — and you threw the game.’”
Scala also has his distrust of the party hurt the most by Donaghy’s gambling — the NBA. It didn’t sit right with him that the league would always tell him that it’s impossible to fix an NBA game. Also, he regrets informing the NBA of its findings about Donaghy betting on games that he worked. Scala told Eden that the FBI had plans to wire tap Donaghy to find out if other NBA referees were also involved in this enormous operation that generated hundreds of millions of dollars. That never happened because, before anything could be set up, the New York Post cover story that broke this news to the world was published.
With Donaghy a part of the documentary, much is going to be from his biased point of view, but sometimes when a person has been disgraced in the way that he has, his appearance is about more than simply him defending himself. Lance Armstrong is all over the 30 for 30 about him, and after watching it I feel that I have a better understanding of him as a person, and still firmly believe that he’s a jerk.
I’m quite intrigued by this news of a Tim Donaghy documentary. Some of Netflix’s best work, the new Cocaine Cowboys, Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich, and Fyre, are all documentaries. The timing of this Donaghy documentary, when so many commercials aired during professional sporting events are for crypto currency and sports betting, might at least make people think about what happened two decades ago and look at what they’re watching more carefully. Maybe it can also make the NBA realize it needs to seriously address the problem that Chris Paul has not ever won a playoff game in which Scott Foster referreed, and it’s such a well-known fact that ABC aired the two appearing to make amends prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals, which Paul would again lose. Paul again lost a playoff game officiated by Foster just last week
It’s not about whether it’s better for sports betting to be done in the shadows or be done in the light. It’s about being able to recognize when the integrity of the game is compromised and to not simply catapult confirmed offenders away, but to find out where integrity is vulnerable and take all of the steps to strengthen it.
Admittedly, I’m mostly here for a Donaghy documentary to see the mess and contradictions. But maybe those need to be put out into the open so pro sports can do more than simply say “this will never happen again,” but take the proper steps to make sure that assurance is closer to fact than it is to an aspiration, before something happens that can’t be swatted away as easily as Donaghy.