The Perfect Cover-up?
A retired ref believes that Tim Donaghy followed the rule book too closely for the NBA's good
Posted: Wednesday August 1, 2007 11:31AM; Updated: Wednesday August 1, 2007 5:33PM
As former NBA referee Tim Donaghy prepared to surrender to federal authorities, who are investigating whether he supplied inside information about NBA games to gamblers and whether he manipulated point totals, his onetime colleagues have been bolstering one another's spirits while expressing unending vitriol toward Donaghy.
"We are a badly wounded group," says a retired NBA referee who desired anonymity. "We call each other almost every day and say, 'How are you today? I had a bad one.' You have to understand that this cuts to the core of what we do. The people who referee at this level have a passion for the game that is beyond what anyone can imagine. And Donaghy has taken that and degraded it."
When referee Robbie Robinson was fired by the league last week, there was immediate suspicion that he had been mixed up with Donaghy. "That just about killed me that people would think that," Robinson, a three-year veteran, told SI. "It really hurt." League sources confirm that Robinson was fired for his poor performance, not for any skulduggery.
The retired ref worked several games with Donaghy and socialized with him occasionally. According to the referee, Donaghy was widely despised by his peers -- he characterizes Donaghy as "an angry screwball and a loner" -- but no official he knows suspected that Donaghy was talking to gamblers or, worse, blowing his whistle based on the betting line. He adds that a prime topic of conversation among refs is whether Donaghy will implicate innocent officials "just to muddy the water."
"He is not beyond looking people in the eye and absolutely denying that he did anything," says the ref. "Knowing his character, I'd say he would absolutely be capable of selling out others to save himself."
The ref also believes that Donaghy's officiating style would have made it harder for the league to detect any illegal activity. A 13-year veteran, Donaghy was known for calling fouls by the book, which means he called a lot of them. According to Covers.com, Donaghy's officiating crews finished with the third-highest fouls-per-game rate in 2005-06 and the fifth-highest in '06-07. (Which fouls are whistled by which referee is not public information.) Donaghy's stringent approach made him a favorite of the league -- Stern said at his July 24 press conference that Donaghy ranked in the "top tier" of officials -- and, potentially, a useful tool for gamblers.
Donaghy was allegedly telling gamblers with ties to organized crime which three-ref crews would be working which games, information the teams don't even know until an official arrives at the arena. A game with Donaghy and another whistle-happy ref would lead to more foul shots, which would lead to more points being scored without the clock running. The teams' combined output would thus have an excellent chance of exceeding the over-under total. Covers.com reports that games Donaghy worked "showed about a 60% lean towards the over" in the last two years; only two refs met the over more often. In essence Donaghy could covertly do the wrong thing (ensure an over bet) by ostensibly doing the right thing (slavishly adhering to the rules). "Reffing should be an art, not a science," says the retired ref. "The NBA has made an effort to preserve freedom of movement, and there are all sorts of guidelines about enforcing that. But there are ways to use common sense to tell players to knock stuff off. Instead, Donaghy would blow his whistle on all of it. And one guy can really influence the flow of a game because other refs try to get on the same page, and suddenly everybody is calling everything."
The ref says that Donaghy had a reputation among his peers for greediness and believes that that predilection may have led to his troubles. "Anytime there was a money-related extra assignment, like teaching a clinic or making a personal appearance, Donaghy would want to do it," says the ref. "If he wasn't chosen, he would be livid. He would go into an absolute tirade."
Donaghy, who made $260,000 during the 2006-07 season, was preoccupied about working deep into the playoffs; senior officials who ref through the Finals can make as much as $75,000 extra. (Donaghy worked five playoff games in the '07 postseason, including one in the second round.) "If the league office told him to stand on his head for two minutes before every quarter," the ref says, "Donaghy would do it. He was obsessed with becoming a Finals referee to get the extra money. And you know what? He was probably on his way to being one."
For now, until Donaghy turns himself in and is formally charged, his former colleagues can only continue to speculate. But the retired ref says that all of the officials to whom he's spoken would prefer to go back to work right away and start the slow process of putting the Donaghy affair behind them.
"The most frustrating thing refs hear is that we have it in for a certain [player or coach]," says the official. "That goes to the core of our integrity. But all the comments that were not real serious before, the ones that rolled off your back, will be different now. People are going to look at refs with raised eyebrows because one of us committed the ultimate sin. And that's going to be awfully tough to take."