The Devil is in the Details… But So is Salvation

At his July 24th presser, a reporter asked Stern about the conspicuous absence of words like “alleged” from his references to indicted ex-official Tim Donaghy. He replied that Donaghy’s council is in the process of negotiating a plea, clearly implying that Donaghy has admitted to betting on NBA games. So, to paraphrase the great American journalist Kent Brockman, the time has come for finger-pointing in the “zebragate” betting scandal. Ken Berger put it best in his Newsday blog (scroll to July 19th entry). No matter how big this story becomes, remember that it happened right under the noses of the league, the sportswriters, and the Vegas oddsmakers, who never removed a Donaghy-officiated game from the board.

And you know what? None of us should really be all that surprised or even particularly outraged. Of course the astonished cries of “will somebody please think of the children!?” have already started pouring in from the four corners of the ESPN “campus” in Bristol and its many satellites.

Details released about Donaghy’s propensity to reach the “over” have made many go “hmm” now that they already know the outcome. We know that Donaghy hit the “over” by calling a lot of fouls. However, he did not call the most fouls and was below the median on technical fouls despite his reputation as a no-nonsense guy. So I’ve seen nothing presented publicly–yet–that should have set off “the rogue ref alert” prior to Donaghy’s name being coughed up in an FBI investigation. Details are now emerging that make it clear Donaghy was no angel in his personal life. I have already heard the vulture’s cackling that his lone-wolf character, and any or all of his run-ins with neighbors, his postal carrier, or Joey Crawford should have tipped the league off. In a league with Ron Artest as well as Eddie Griffin in its recent employ, if any of these things register even barely on the NBA’s personal dysfunction scale it’s a much more sensitive scale than I’d have given it credit for being. Stern apparently did bring Donaghy in for tea, biscotti, and a chat about being a good citizen, acting on allegations that Donaghy gambled in Atlantic City casinos. He found nothing actionable. To any of you who have ever been at all close to a serious addict of any kind this should come as no surprise. It looks like the league did what it could while still affording Donaghy some semblance of due process. This stuff will be important to remember in the coming days as the “outrage” peddlers cobble together disparate bits of data, and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, start calling for sacrificial lambs at the league office.

So, as zebragate continues to unfold the two most important questions to consider (in the absence of new information that implicates anyone other than Donaghy) are these:

1. What did Donaghy do precisely: shave points or fix games?

The difference between the two is subtle but important. So precision is key. Not surprisingly, that distinction has been all but completely ignored on TV and radio, at least up until the time I started writing this blog entry. Point-shaving involves manipulating the composite score or the scoring margin of a game, but may not necessarily involve favoring team A to beat team B. That is, an official could call fouls on both teams sufficient to inflate the composite score, or could call enough fouls on the heavily-favored team A to allow team B to cover the spread. Game-fixing on the other hand involves pre-determining that team A will beat team B. An official might call enough fouls on team B, or perhaps team B’s star player, to put it at a disadvantage severe enough to lose. All things equal, point-shaving is far easier than game-fixing without drawing suspicion. Thus it is likely of greater interest to the house. (Bookies need the game to at least appear as if it is on the level to keep the people gambling. Otherwise what they will have is boxing, or at least the circus that currently passes for boxing.)

If it is eventually revealed that Donaghy shaved points, and did so alone, then I suspect this scandal too shall pass in time. In truth, for an official shaving points is probably no tougher than cheating a bit on his or her taxes. The league cannot do much more than it already does to prevent it short of wiretapping, a position I heard Skip Bayless advocate on ESPN’s First and 10 show. (If there is a proto-fascist position to be taken on a sports issue Bayless is your man. You can set your watch by him.) The threat of federal prosecution is the only serious deterrent to shaving or fixing. So although zebragate is ugly and may get uglier it’s not quite the “sky is falling” scenario we have seen, heard, and read about over the past few days from sports journalists whose lust for outrage and penchant for hyperbole know no bounds. Having said that, the true doomsday scenario gets triggered if Donaghy a) admits to outright game-fixing, b) is revealed to have done such, or c) pleas down in a way that makes him look guilty of game-fixing. Again, one need only look at boxing’s flea-ridden, rotting carcass to see how even the appearance of staged outcomes can suck the life out of a sport. Although it is too soon to rule out the doomsday scenario Martin Johnson’s recent piece at the Sun cites empirical research that suggests it is highly unlikely.

2. How did Donaghy do his thing?

I hope the details don’t get lost in all the inevitable hoopla. Whenever an important story breaks in the sports media first I worry that the details will simply be cut out by editors whose dedication to simple narratives about simpler times, before whatever is the perversion du jour, when players played for the love of the game, would be the envy of any old-school Soviet propagandist. Mob ties and bookies make for sexy copy, but as a serious NBA fan I’m far more interested in how an official managed to consistently rate as very good-to-outstanding yet is about to cop a plea on point-shaving (and possibly game-fixing) charges. Had Donaghy not been outed by what looks to be maybe old high school buddies he would have qualified to officiate third-round playoff games based on performance. We will likely not hear from Donaghy, but I’d love to hear from retired officials about how he might have shaved points while maintaining a profile that never set off alarm bells in New York, or in Vegas for that matter.

The devil will be in those details but just maybe the league’s salvation will be there too if it can uncover areas ripe for abuse and set up systems to monitor them. What sorts of things did Donaghy call and for what purpose? Did he “set the tone” early by calling a couple nickel-and-dime fouls to see if his colleagues will follow his lead? In games struggling to reach the over did he focus on players with foul-prone reputations? Did he call more fouls outside his area? Did he call a succession of defensive 3-seconds calls to open up the lane or did he focus on calling particular types of fouls (e.g., handchecking)? Did he make certain to put good free-throw shooters on the line to beat the spread and poor free-throw shooters otherwise? Did other officials dispute his calls? Or is this really a case where you could conceivably call a foul on every play in the NBA?

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Part-time blogger on the Knicks at and Seahawks at In my free time I hang out at the University of South Carolina and occasionally fill thirsty young minds with knowledge about various and sundry things related to consumer behavior and marketing.

20 thoughts to “The Devil is in the Details… But So is Salvation”

  1. If there is even a single game that was decided by a Donaghy call in the closing seconds it is going to be assumed that he was fixing games whether it is valid or not.

    That’s what sucks about this kind of thing; there are going to be so many half-truths and wild allegations to sift through that there is a good chance we may never know all of the truth about this incident. Already I have heard talk of the Warriors making the playoffs because of Donaghy fixing games.

  2. Nba was tipped off to Donaghy by an ongoing FBI
    investigation so what can we surmize here:
    a- the nba system of self checking its refs and
    players was cracked/not good to begin with.
    b- unless a whistle blower comes forward there
    will be no way to tell who else was involved
    c- The notion that a ref or player won’t
    jeopordize their salaries/career for fixing
    pt spreads or games will have to be re- invesigated.

    So he was caught fixing pts spread but we
    shouldn’t even think that he might of been
    fixing games? Kind of like being half pregnant.

  3. It’s much, much easier to get away with fixing the spread than with fixing the outcome.

    And refs won’t jeopardize their careers for fixing point spreads, but I’m pretty sure they’re not too happy with the idea of prison time. And it’s not like this guy was doing it to pad his salary, it’s very likely he had little choice in the matter.

  4. this rational about jeopardizing careers was the prevailing thought by me and just about everyone else, but now we are dealing with a new reality.
    did he have a gambling problem? was it just easy money? how much money? did he not care because others were doing it anyway? I’m just saying we
    gotta rethink this, and speaking about rethinking
    I realy don’t understand how Marbury sometimes will play lites out and then again decide he’s gonna be mr feed the ball all nite to anyone else. Last year he was much more consistent from december on but prior to, I don’t know.
    Some thoughts: If your trying to fix the spread by which the winning team should cover, aren’t you
    in some way fixing the game by tilting
    the playing field toward the favored team?
    There such a little distinction but you must admit
    it does sound a lot better and easier to swallow
    if your trying to minimize the image damage.
    Peter Vecsey, basketball guruu, has any1 seen
    an article from him on this topic???

  5. Vecsey traditionally takes some time off from writing around this time of year, after the draft and before training camp. so, no, he hasn’t written anything about Donaghy yet.

  6. First off, Tim Donaghy was not “was below the median on technical fouls despite his reputation as a no-nonsense guy.”

    The stats that have been noted in other articles (most notably Foxsports) have stated the Tim Donaghy, over the past two seasons (the ones under investigation) has called more technical fouls than any other referee in the NBA. Highest per game average, too (about 2.6). Well above the league average (1.78). Are you saying these stats are incorrect?

    He’s also #2 in personal fouls per game called over the past two seasons, but that wasn’t as high above the average (well within a standard deviation from the mean).

    Secondly, we still don’t know if he fixed games, point-shaved, or did anything at all related to his officiating. The only thing he’s been tied to so far is releasing confidential information to the mobsters, namely telling them which ref crew is doing which games. That’s it so far. So we may be talking about a big deal, or a very small deal. Until the FBI releases more info, we’re just speculating cluelessly.

  7. honestly, if it turned out that the result of every single regular season and playoff game was fixed (obviously not the case, but humor me for a second), I wouldn’t think the season was much more of a joke than I do simply based on that inane Stoudemire suspension.

  8. stopmikelupica-

    David Stern in his 24 July press conference said that this past season Donaghy was in the lower half of the league in techs called. Hence the phrase “below the median.” The stats you cite are two-year averages. Perhaps that suggests Stu Jackson had a sit down with Donaghy about his quick T’s before the season started?

    “Secondly, we still don?t know if he fixed games, point-shaved, or did anything at all related to his officiating.”

    When asked directly at the presser about why he, a lawyer, was not referring to Donaghy, as “suspected of…” or “alleged to have…” Stern’s response was that Donaghy’s council had as much as admitted to betting on games to him, but was in the process of basically negotiating a plea deal with the feds. I suppose that’s still speculation but speculation’s kinda the nature of the beast here. This isn’t a journalistic source. It’s just fodder for conversation.

  9. I don’t think anyone but those on this blogosphere
    believe that Doneghy was just a “rogue ref”.
    Suspicions about the nba tilting the field towards the stars have long existed, alegations about Doneghy tipping the mob on who other ref
    crews were is highly suspicious and potentialy the most damaging in that this scandal could spread. Let me pose this question, the fbi has
    been monitoring this guy for supposedly 1 or two
    years, they just about have all that the goods on him, so what is there to negotiate ie plea deal,
    what cards can Doneghy play? If you connect
    the dots the only card he has is implicating
    other refs or players. Don’t be suprised if
    at the end of this he falls on the sword, gets banned from the nba but does no jail time.
    Where’s Pete Vecsey when you need him!

  10. The FBI doesn’t care about the NBA. It’s got a much bigger jurisdiction. The NBA is David Stern’s problem. The Feds want to use this ref to implicate larger organized crime characters and activities. Not players and other refs. After they are through with him, Stern will use their findings to do what he has to to restore faith and integrity to the game– it remains to be seen how hard a task that will be.

  11. Stern’s gonna have to change some of the superstar treatment in the NBA, instead of having different views on how officials call the game. For example, some refs “call it tight”, some “swallow the whistle and lets em play”. All refs should have an objective outlook into how to call the game, atleast uniform with all other refs, in not, the refs are still gonna suck.
    NBA does check accuracy in calls and have high numbers, but its time to level the way the game is played. How the refs decide to call the game effects what some teams like to do, run and gun etc. Some refs let the game play out, some call alot of calls.
    Time to get ALL the refs on the same page and call the game correctly.

  12. Refereeing a game is very subjective. A foul should probably be called on every possession if all the rules are followed all the time. When a team scores unmolested, the defense is ridiculed for being porous.

    I don’t think the way games are called can be changed. In fact, to make any changes to the way games are called all but admits that the old system was flawed, invalidating all that came before it was changed.

    Instead the league will need a transparent system of accountability. I have no idea how to implement that, but again– it’s Stern’s problem.

  13. yeah, I don’t think anything’s going to change on the court.

    off topic:

    strong rumors about Garnett to the Celtics for Jefferson, Rondo and Ratliff’s contract, that it may be announced as done very shortly.

    Boston would have to include someone else to make salaries match, my guess would be Telfair, leaving Boston with Tony Allen and Gabe Pruitt at PG. Boston would have Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen then, all three of those guys would have no more excuses.

  14. so if you’re Isiah and you hear that proposal, do you offer something like Lee, Curry and Crawford for Garnett?

    Garnett, Zack, Balkman, Q, Marbury

    Morris, Chandler/Jeffries, Nichols, Mardy

    Nate, Malik, Fred Jones, Dickau, Jerome James

    that’s less salary flexibility than Boston is giving them, but definitely more talent. Lee, Foye and Corey Brewer is a nice core to start rebuilding around, plus Lee could help Brewer adjust to the league. the other benefit of this deal would be that it would force Owen to keep watching Curry if he wanted to see Lee. :)

    Steph and Garnett reunited with one last chance to win together, who could resist that story? we also could be under the cap after 2008-2009, at least before Garnett signed an extension.

  15. “Multiple sources close to the situation told DraftExpress Sunday that the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves have come to terms on a trade exchanging Kevin Garnett for a package including Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair, and Theo Ratliff. The exact details of the trade aren?t known at this point, but it is believed that the deal will be completed shortly with similar parameters.

    This deal has been rumored for most of the summer, but according to sources with direct knowledge of the situation, the main hold up had been the negotiation of a contract extension for Garnett. According to this source, Garnett?s camp is asking for a 5 year extension worth 125 million dollars. Whether or not the two parties have altered the initial proposal or agreed to it is not known, but apparently some accord has been reached. Garnett has an opt-clause in his contract for next season that he has essentially been using as leverage to get traded and secure his financial future with the team that acquires his services. ”

  16. Maybe Isiah had been working on a trade for KG, and when (if!) KG acquiesced to playing in Boston, that was when he went ahead and signed Chandler, signaling the pursuit was over.

    Isn’t $25 million a year over the max salary? His old contract was grandfathered, but are all future ones too?

    This takes the focus off dirty refs for a while too. Could Stern’s hands be on this?

  17. Jon- It seems like Minnesota is very high on Al Jefferson and might not agree that the Knicks’ offer includes more talent. Especially in the context of their new rebuilding project. Jefferson and Green are young and atheltic with the skills to develop all-around games. They’ve both been putting up good numbers on a miserable Celtics team. Crawford and Curry, on the other hand, are young vets with gaping holes in their games.

  18. At the same time, you never know what Kevin McHale might consider a good deal. The worse the offer might do is give Minnesota leverage to force Boston to include more in the deal. Maybe Rando and more future picks.

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