Does the NBA Rig Games?

Yesterday defendant Tim Donaghy (and former NBA ref) submitted a letter to the federal judge who will sentence him shortly for various federal offenses involving match fixing. While one "bad apple" can exist among referees in any sport, Donaghy's letter makes some allegations that go to the very core of the integrity of the NBA.

For example, Donaghy alleges that certain referees were known as "company men" who always acted in the business interest of the NBA. Accordingly, these referees acted to extend a playoff series because that would be good for the NBA. Similarly, Donaghy stated:

league officials would tell referees that they should withhold calling technical fouls on certain star players because doing so hurt ticket sales and television ratings. . . [T]here were times when a referee supervisor would tell referees that NBA Executive X did not want them to call technical fouls on star players or remove them from the game. In January 2000, Referee D went against these insturctions and ejected a star player in the first quarter of the game. Refereee D later was reprimanded privately by the league for that ejection.

[i]n other instances . . . the manipulation was more subtle. If the NBA wanted a team to succeed, league officials would inform referees that opposing players were getting away with violations. Refreees then would call fouls on certain players, frequently resulting in victory for the opposing teams.

The full text of Donaghy's letter can be found here.

I am frequently skeptical of claims made by defendants to save their own skin shortly before sentencing. But here Donaghy through his attorney is describing what "cooperation" he provided to the FBI (under penalty of perjury) after his indictment.

As someone who lives in small market NBA town (Salt Lake City), I have always wondered whether the Utah Jazz are disfavored when they play a big market team (i.e., the L.A. Lakers). NBA basketball turns so heavily on foul calls, that even a slight emphasis for one team or another can easily make or break a team. In fact, I find it hard to watch NBA basketball any more, because its level of subjectivity approaches that of figuring skating (Was that a charge on Carlos Boozer? Or a blocking foul on Kobe? Do you like Sasha Cohen? Or Michele Kwan?)

One interesting thing about Donaghy's claim is that he lists several specific games in which the NBA favored one team or another. Will anyone go back and watch the videotapes of those games and see whether his claims seem true?

Was Ralph Nader Right About the NBA's Failure to Investigate Bad Refs?

As mentioned in my earlier post, disgraced NBA referree Timothy Donaghy has essentially accused the NBA of fixing games. In his sentencing letter (linked in my earlier post), he makes a thinly-veiled reference to game six of the Lakers-Sacramento series in 2002:

Referees A, F, and G were officiating a playoff series between the Team 5 and Team 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, [I] learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. [I] knew Refereees A and F to be "company men," always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series.

Ralph Nader complained about this game to NBA Commissioner Stern at the time in a letter that can be found here. What he wrote at the time takes on a whole new cast now:

Calls by referees in the NBA are likely to be more subjective than in professional baseball or football. But as the judicious and balanced Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote this Sunday, too many of the calls in the fourth quarter (when the Lakers received 27 foul shots) were "stunningly incorrect," all against Sacramento. After noting that the three referees in Game 6 "are three of the best in the game," he wrote: "I have never seen officiating in a game of consequence as bad as that in Game 6....When Pollard, on his sixth and final foul, didn't as much as touch Shaq. Didn't touch any part of him. You could see it on TV, see it at courtside. It wasn't a foul in any league in the world. And Divac, on his fifth foul, didn't foul Shaq. They weren't subjective or borderline or debatable. And these fouls not only resulted in free throws, they helped disqualify Sacramento's two low-post defenders." And one might add, in a 106-102 Lakers' victory, this officiating took away what would have been a Sacramento series victory in 6 games.

This was not all. The Kobe Bryant elbow in the nose of Mike Bibby, who after lying on the floor groggy, went to the sideline bleeding, was in full view of the referee, who did nothing, prompted many fans to start wondering about what was motivating these officials.

Wilbon discounted any conspiracy theories about the NBA-NBC desire for a Game 7 etc., but unless the NBA orders a review of this game's officiating, perceptions and suspicions, however presently absent any evidence, will abound and lead to more distrust and distaste for the games in general.

Nader makes a point that I agree with: The NBA should not prohibit coaches and players from criticizing referees, on penalty of substantial fines.

Donahy's suggestions, contained in his letter, are less helpful. He suggests "that the league train referees to treat all players equally, regardless of popularity. This policy would help ensure that referees officiate games fairly." Well, yeah, but how are you going to do that?

UPDATE: As pointed out by a VC reader, there's a good, balanced discussion of the issue over at Salon, found here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Is the NBA Trying to Silence Donaghy?
  2. Was Ralph Nader Right About the NBA's Failure to Investigate Bad Refs?
  3. Does the NBA Rig Games?
Is the NBA Trying to Silence Donaghy?

I've discussed the recent controversy about the NBA game fixing in a couple of recent posts — a subject being batted around in the blogosphere. What has not been widely discussed is Donaghy's additional allegations that the NBA is trying to silence him. Whatever one makes of the other allegations, this one rings true.

Sentencing in the case was originally set for November 2007. The NBA did not request any restitution. Sentencing was postponed, presumably to allow Donaghy to cooperate with the government. On May 19, 2008, Donaghy sent his letter describing his "cooperation" to the sentencing judge — a letter which included the sensational allegations about NBA game fixing. The result? On June 5, 2008, the NBA sent a letter to the probation officer working on the case requesting — for the first time — $1 million in restitution. The NBA argues that this was the cost of the "internal investigation" that it had to conduct to determine who was involved in illegal gambling.

I'm an advocate for crime victims. I believe that the victims should be fully reimbursed for losses that they have suffered as a consequence of the crime. But as the NBA's lawyers must know, current federal law does not allow for restitution of consequential damages — such as the costs of an internal investigation.

I testified about this very problem back in April before the Crime Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committe. My testimony can be found here. The problem is that current federal restitution law only allows a victim to recover for losses that fall into certain narrow pigeon holes — lost income, medical expenses, and the like. Consequential damages are simply not authorized.

In light of all this, I agree with Donaghy's lawyers that the NBA's belated request for $1 million in restitution is a "transparent effort to intimidate Mr. Donaghy." A copy of Donaghy's lawyer's letter can be found here.

Update: Here is an interesting analysis of the issue from the Opposition Brief.