A careful examination of that record shows Donaghy's likely pattern. Last year, Donaghy reffed 12 games in which the over/under was 184.5 or less—those games went over 10 out of 12 times, a highly suspicious number. Donaghy games with an over/under above 205 points, however, only went over seven out of 18 times. This makes sense intuitively. In a low-scoring game, a quick whistle would ensure that each team gets enough free throws to sufficiently pad the point total. On the other hand, it's harder to call enough fouls to ensure an "over" in a game where the Vegas line is already high.
If the NBA spent more time listening to Las Vegas, it probably would've known all this two years ago. As USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan points out, "Nevada bookmakers are a clearinghouse for illegal bookies." Any suspicious bets taken on college campuses or the corner bar get reported back to Vegas sports books, not the local district attorney. Think back to the point-shaving scandal that hit college football this spring. A Vegas oddsmaker thought the betting activity on University of Toledo games looked suspicious. He blew the whistle to the NCAA, and an investigation ultimately revealed Toledo players' connections to a Michigan gambler. That's how game-fixing gets snuffed out—usually. But according to Sheridan and professional handicapper R.J. Bell, the NBA is the only major pro sports league that doesn't stay in regular contact with Vegas about unusual betting activity. "A few years ago the NCAA wanted to abolish gambling on college sports altogether," Sheridan says. "Now, they are sleeping with Nevada. The NBA just got a wake up call. They need to join us in the 21st century."
One easy way to prevent flim-flammery would be to eliminate spread betting altogether. Rather than asking bettors to predict whether the favorite will win by more or less than seven points, sports books could simply lay odds that each team would win outright—bet on the underdog and you'd win more, bet on the favorite and you'd win less. In reality, this will never happen. Point spreads exist because they're an easy way for gambling houses to guarantee an even number of bets on both sides. They also serve as a simple, if imprecise, shorthand to determine the difference between two teams—"the Pistons are favored by seven over the Bulls." By contrast, money lines—"Detroit -110"—are notoriously hard for the layman to understand. And of course, spread bets tend to keep games alive for gamblers long after the actual contest has been decided—only the betting line has the power to make a 20-point game suspenseful in the fourth quarter.
While it's doubtful that anything will change in Vegas, the Donaghy scandal should open up a couple of other items for reassessment. In 2003, Rasheed Wallace was suspended for seven games after a postgame confrontation with Donaghy in the bowels of Portland's Rose Garden. Ever since, Wallace's technical foul tally has skyrocketed and the burly Pistons forward has earned an unshakable reputation as a surly malcontent. Might our opinion of Wallace change if we learn that he was the recipient of a passel of dubious calls?
Even more intriguing, Donaghy and Wallace were both on the floor during the NBA's other recent crisis—the night Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson charged into the stands at the Palace. That game took place before Donaghy's suspected wrongdoing, but there is no question that the refs did a terrible job controlling the on-court action before the mayhem. In the wake of this scandal, every game will be in question, and not only by fans disposed to seeing black helicopters outside the arena. David Stern is often credited with being first among commissioners, but it will take all of his skills to manage this situation. Any misstep, and he'll find himself in the unthinkable position of envying Bud Selig.
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