Hey NBA: When it Comes to Donaghy, it is time to Take a Stand and Move on.

Tim Donaghy is widely known as the referee who bet on NBA games and was punished for it back in 2008. Now his story is back in the news because of a recent ESPN article that claims he also fixed these games that he admitted to wagering on.

In July of 2007, the FBI started an investigation into NBA referee Tim Donaghy after the rise of allegations that he was “influencing the outcome of games on which he or associates of his had bet money.” After an extensive investigation that captured headlines and embarrassed the League, Donaghy pled guilty to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce; he was then was sentenced to 15 months in prison and three years of supervised release. As Donaghy was seen as a horrible black-eye on the integrity and history of the game, the NBA did its best to fully separate from Donaghy’s actions and make it clear that nothing like that would ever happen again. This seemed to work for a long time, over a decade in fact. But now, over ten years after Donaghy was punished for his actions, this betting scandal has been thrust back into the limelight, and the NBA is scrambling to mitigate it. The reason for the revival: a new debate into whether Donaghy just simply bet on these games, or if he personally “fixed” them.

This distinction between betting and fixing was further amplified in May of 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that had ‘forbidden states from legalizing sports gambling within their own borders.’ It’s commonly believed that the ruling will effectively remove the interstate ban on sports betting, which would then drastically boost the amount of money that is wagered on sporting events. It will take more time and research to see just how big of an effect this will have on sports betting, but at the outset, it is worth at least noting the distinction now that states can permit sports betting.

Last week, ESPN released an article titled “How former ref Tim Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games.” The article essentially outlined the history of Tim Donaghy and how he got involved with the wrong people, and then lays out the manner in which he was able to plan and carry out an elaborate game-fixing scheme. At first glance, this may not seem important, as most fans of the NBA assume that we have already been aware of this for a long time now. However, to the surprise of many, this was a new claim. The only thing that was ever really established in 2007 was that Donaghy bet on his own games. Betting on your own games and fixing games are two extremely different practices, and also bring about two very distinct emotions when considered by those involved with the game. The common view would be that if a referee had placed a bet on a game that he was officiating, it would be common sense to think that he would then make sure that he won the bet, in other words fixing the game.

In response to the ESPN article, the NBA released a statement laying out the extensive analysis that the league conducted in 2007 to ensure that Donaghy did not fix games. The statement claimed: “The Tim Donaghy matter concluded over a decade ago with a full investigation by the federal government, Donaghy’s termination from the NBA, and his conviction for criminal acts. At the same time, at the request of the NBA, former prosecutor Larry Pedowitz conducted an independent investigation of Donaghy’s misconduct and issued publicly a 133-page report. This report was based on an extensive review of game data and video as well as approximately 200 interviews, thousands of pages of documents, and consultation with various gambling and data experts.”

The NBA also made clear that not only was the ESPN article an attempt to revive an “old story,” but that it also was full of errors. The biggest “error” that the NBA focused on was the claim that the Pedowitz Report concluded that Donaghy did not fix games. According to the NBA, this report made no such claim, and instead conveyed that: “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.” Now, if these two claims sound the same to you, then you are not alone. It would seem that stating that Donaghy did not fix games and claiming that an investigation did not find any basis to disagree with the fact that Donaghy did not fix games, are the same exact thing, and have the same exact implications for Donaghy and the League. However, the NBA focuses on this as a crucial difference, and tries to invalidate the entire ESPN article based on this wording.

It makes very little sense that the NBA is still working to fight this narrative eleven years after the scandal wrapped up. It is certainly understandable that the League wants this incident to stay buried and fade out of the minds of NBA fans for good. However, a professional sports league will be hard-pressed to ever fully escape this stain, and it definitely is not realistic to think they could do so after a decade. The NBA’s statement claims that ESPN’s article is attempting to “revive this old story.” But in today’s age of technology and the ability to both spread and preserve news at unbelievably fast rates, it does not make much sense to call this an “old story.” This is something that the NBA is going to have to deal with for a long, long time. Despite its recent popularity vaulting it into the debate for biggest professional sports league of the present and the future, the NBA cannot run from what is arguably the biggest issue in the history of the league; and it definitely cannot run this fast.

What is also very strange is the way that the NBA is trying to straddle the fence on whether Donaghy did in fact fix games or not. It is clearly in the league’s best interest to take a stand on what they believe really happened. Either a) Donaghy never fixed games, and they have the research to prove so; or b) Donaghy both wagered and worked to fix the games, and the league has done everything in its power since then to make sure that it will never happen again. Although a decade is a short amount of time in terms of a professional sports league, it is a big enough sample size for the league to prove to its fans that they can be trusted again. Since Donaghy’s conviction in 2007, the NBA has seemingly done everything right, and the popularity of the game has never been higher. But the rebirth of a disgrace like this can undo all of that good faith that the league has built up. The best thing the NBA can do now is embrace the fact that the Donaghy scandal happened and take a definitive stance either way. Waffling back and forth will do nothing but hurt the credibility of the league, ultimately undoing the considerable efforts that the NBA has made to address the issue over the last ten years.

-Will Hython

Photo Credit: Dan Feldman; Yahoo Sports

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2016 Union College Graduate; 2019 University at Buffalo School of Law Graduate; Former Captain of the Union College Basketball Team; NBA/NCAA Fanatic (Go Lakers! Go Syracuse Orange!); Interested in the interrelationships between law and sports.

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