The worst job in the world this week? Pro sports commissioner. The NFL's Roger Goodell has to deal with Michael Vick and his rape stand. Bud Selig has to suffer through the Barry Bonds traveling road show. And the NBA's David Stern? He wishes that all he had to worry about was a dogfighter and a juicer.
As Sam Eifling wrote in Slate four years ago, the NBA has always provided ample fodder for conspiracy theorists. Basketball fans have long debated whether Stern fixes the results of the draft lottery from his Madison Avenue aerie, or if he hands out refereeing assignments based on which team the league wants to win. For a skeptic, that kind of talk sounds like the delusional ranting of an overinvested fan. Dark, mysterious forces control the fate of the Dallas Mavericks? Really? But last week we learned that the paranoiacs weren't completely crazy. Somebody was pulling the strings in the NBA—alas, it was a shlubby ref with a gambling problem, not David Stern.
The extent of Tim Donaghy's nefariousness will come out over the coming days. The most important questions: What games did he affect, how much money was involved—and most crucial for the league's recovery—were other referees on the take? Basketball's whirling nature, with its delicious combination of agility and contact, makes it one of the most subjective and difficult games to officiate. But there are three referees on the floor during each NBA game, not to mention an NBA department that rigorously grades each official in the league's employ. Considering all that, can a single referee, acting alone, swing a game or playoff series?
I put that question to Al Raya, who runs a training academy called the Midwest Referee School. One ref can change the outcome of a game "with any number of controversial calls," Raya says. "That makes it tough on his crew, though, and during timeouts or after the game, the other refs would definitely ask, What are you seeing that we're not?" It does seem likely that Donaghy's fellow officials had no idea about his financial problems—according to Raya, referees on the same crew aren't nearly as tight as, say, partners walking a police beat. Add in the fact that NBA crews work together for only a few games before getting regrouped, and it seems possible that a shady ref could avoid detection by his colleagues.
Even in hindsight, it's not easy to spot Donaghy's misbehavior. One game that's already come under suspicion is Game 3 of May's Suns-Spurs series, a contest that ESPN.com's Bill Simmons called "the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far." But a quick review of the malfeasance on YouTube reveals only one egregious call by Donaghy, a ridiculously late foul on a Manu Ginobili drive that he whistled from about 50 feet away. The only reason that Donaghy doesn't come off that badly is that his colleagues are just as incompetent. While it seems doubtful that the whole crew had money on the Spurs, it does make you wonder what the NBA's supervisor of officials actually does. If that kind of performance isn't enough to earn a public reprimand from the league, I'm not sure what is.
Not only did Donaghy not receive any kind of warning from the NBA, he apparently got an above-average evaluation for the season. The fact that he skated through the league's grading process seems to indicate that, rather than fix games directly, he worked the margins by shaving points on the over/under line. (The over/under is a bet on whether both teams will score more or less than a given point total. If the over/under is 200, you'll win an "over" bet if the final score is 101-100. You'll lose if the score is 100-99.) The New York Post, which broke this story Friday, has provided numbers from Stats LLC pointing to the high number of personal and technical fouls called by Donaghy's crews. And according to covers.com, which tracks referees' performances against the various spreads, gamblers betting the over on all 72 of Donaghy's games would have won 43 times. That's the third-highest number out of 60 NBA refs.