Tim Donaghy is featured in our betting scandals series

Tim Donaghy: Do We Need To Say More?

It’s not very challenging for a professional photographer to take an unflattering shot of a subject, if that’s what he’s after. It seems to have been especially easy in the case of Tim Donaghy, who looks beady-eyed and sinister in almost every photo of him.

Sometimes you actually can judge a book by its cover, because the further you get into the book of Donaghy, the harder it is to think of him as a sympathetic figure.

Who among us hasn’t at one time or another wondered, possibly out loud, if a referee is cheating?

(Maybe it was a palming call followed by a three-seconds in the key call on consecutive possessions in overtime of the city championship you still haven’t gotten over, several years later. But I digress.)

NBA referee Tim Donaghy really was cheating.

How could a guy from Delaware County – raised in basketball-rich Haverford, who played at Cardinal O’Hara High and attended Villanova University, who made his way through the toils of basketball officiating to make it to the NBA – lose it all amid efforts to fix the outcomes of games?

That is what Tim Donaghy did, and he’s about to pay the price, reported the Daily Times of Delaware County in Pennsylvania in 2008.

The disgraced former NBA referee is scheduled to be sentenced next week for his part in a gambling scheme that had him betting thousands of dollars on games he was officiating and providing tips to high school buddies who were running a small-time bookkeeping operation.

Raised on the outskirts of Philadelphia, a cradle of basketball officiating, Donaghy showed such promise as a ref that he was hired by the NBA at the age of 27 in 1994.

(We once took our high school team to a tournament in Philadelphia, and were amazed at the high quality of the officiating there.)

Tim Donaghy's Betting Scandal

The Donaghy scandal broke in the summer of 2007, when a New York Post story reported the FBI was looking into allegations that an NBA referee had bet on games. Other media outlets did their own reporting, and it was revealed Donaghy was the referee under suspicion.

NBA commissioner David Stern said "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." 

During a press conference, Stern called the Donaghy matter "the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced," while also describing it as an isolated case.

Amid the furor, Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois said the affair could potentially be "one of the most damaging scandals in the history of American sports," and talked about holding congressional hearings. Needless to say, Stern didn’t want that.

At first, Donaghy tried to minimize his involvement, but admitted that a time or two, you know, he might have mentioned that he had heard that someone might, you know, be dealing with a rolled ankle.

He later confessed to betting on games he officiated between the 2003–07 seasons, but in his version he didn’t really do anything to alter the outcome of games, just made use of inside info to get bets down on NBA games.

This had the strong whiff of bullshit.

Subsequently, his co-conspirators and people who researched the results of games he reffed confirmed that yeah, that was bullshit.

It was reported that a former high school classmate of Donaghy's and that guy’s “boss” had bet on NBA games based on Donaghy's tips and later, professional gamblers told law enforcement they bet on games officiated by Donaghy because it was so profitable.

The Arrest & Penalties

After being arrested, Donaghy said he was paid $2,000 in cash for a correct pick based on a tip he passed on, but later got a raise to $5,000 per successful wager. Of course, if those paltry figures were right, that would make him a schmuck as well as a crook.

And in fact, Donaghy's co-conspirators took issue with his accounting, with former best friend turned government witness Tommy Martino claiming the payments between December 2006 and April 2007 alone were $120,000, and another gambler saying he paid Donaghy more than 200K.

Research showed that in ten consecutive games Donaghy worked in 2007, the point spread moved a point and a half or more before tipoff, hinting strongly that serious money had been wagered, with that big money coincidentally winning every time.

Donaghy claimed he had a severe gambling addiction, and was on medication to address it.

(If you’re not addicted to something these days, are you really trying?)

One ESPN piece on the scandal said By Donaghy's own admission in his memoir, so much cash started rolling in that he had problems knowing physically where to stash it so his wife wouldn't start asking questions.

On August 15, 2007, Donaghy pleaded guilty to two federal charges related to the investigation, telling judges he had used coded language on burner phones to give tips about injuries and which refs and players despised each other.

He was sentenced to 15 months in prison and three years of supervised release.

Donaghy was released from federal prison in November of 2009, after writing a memoir called Personal Foul: A First-Person Account of the Scandal That Rocked the NBA. 

Many of the claims he made in the book and in later appearances, including that the NBA lets officials know who the league wants to win games, have been debunked.

Later, The Whistleblower podcast devoted ten episodes to the story of Tim Donaghy.

Immediately after the Donaghy scandal came to light, several writers said the NBA's popularity would be hurt by the news.

I think we can agree, the league seems to be doing fine.

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