Did Tim Donaghy fix games?

By Henry Abbott

It's almost certainly the biggest question to arise from the Tim Donaghy scandal, and it's what Real Sports' Bryant Gumbel asked James Battista.

Battista is one of the gamblers the former NBA referee plead guilty to conspiring with. Howard Beck of the New York Times writes:

Given their startling success in picking games, Gumbel asks Battista in the interview if he thinks that Donaghy fixed games. After a long pause, Battista says: “No comment. But I will say he wasn’t getting paid unless we covered the spread.”

Donaghy has paid his debt to society, but has never been charged with actually fixing NBA games. This is the one topic on which the NBA and Donaghy agree. The FBI, likewise, has supported the notion that Donaghy did not fix games.

What's less clear, however, is how one could really know such a thing. What kind of research could you do to know, with any kind of certainty, that Donaghy never made a call to increase his bets' chances of succeeding? Brainstorm with me. As an NBA referee, Tim Donaghy made thousands of decisions to blow his whistle, or not. How sure could anyone really be about that none of those calls were influenced by his bets?

Not very, evidently.

In the massive October 2008 investigation into the Donaghy affair commissioned by the NBA, lawyer Lawrence Pedowitz was quite soft on this issue, saying on page 19:

It seems plausible to us that Donaghy may not have manipulated games.

Which is very different from saying that we know he did not affect the outcome of NBA games. That is confirmed two pages later, when the report makes clear that a lot of the key information has not been examined:

Given the information currently in our possession, we and the League’s experts are unable to contradict the government’s conclusion 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.'...

Donaghy officiated close to 300 games in this period. Without knowing on which games or teams he wagered and without access to Donaghy’s explanation for his calls, we believe that it would be impossible to find that the government’s conclusion that he did not manipulate games is erroneous.