Is there anything truly new in ESPN’s 12-year anniversary piece on the Tim Donaghy scandal? So many anecdotes and stories have dripped out over the years that it takes some time and searching to determine what’s really fresh and what’s rehashed.
ESPN explains in detail how Donaghy got discovered by serious gamblers, which led pretty directly to his downfall in 2007. There are also some more details on the public reveal of the FBI investigation here.
The writer, Scott Eden, also purports to have spearheaded a more thorough investigation of Donaghy’s calls over the entire period he reportedly picked games for gamblers (both his friend Jack Concannon, and the somewhat more notorious Jimmy Battista). The story determines, based only on made foul calls, that Donaghy probably fixed games.
The NBA retorted that based on its much more in-depth investigation analyzing not just fouls Donaghy called, but other violations and non-calls. That response reiterated that there’s no real indicator of game-fixing beyond one game, which bolsters the idea that Donaghy only used inside information to make his picks, not his power as a referee in impacting games directly. This is an idea, for what it’s worth, that Donaghy admitted to, that federal prosecutors accepted, and the NBA essentially made canon through its independent report by Larry Pedowitz. (The NBA also alleges a few specific factual errors in the ESPN analysis and has some semantic arguments.)
ESPN’s analysis says Donaghy fixed games for years. The NBA’s analysis says (in an extremely legalistic way) that he didn’t. The federal law enforcement apparatus says he didn’t. Donaghy says he didn’t.
Some segment of the NBA fandom — perhaps a majority — will always believe Donaghy did fix games, and that his allegations about impropriety from other NBA referees are true. Some segment of the NBA fandom will take the league’s word for it that Donaghy was a rogue who merely used his info and intuition to make picks, and maybe subconsciously favored teams.
Regardless, it’s clear that the unprovable nature of the allegations will keep the Donaghy scandal alive for years and years.
There are enough drips in this massive ESPN piece — and some crafty dot-connecting among previously published information from a handful of books on the scandal — to rekindle interest in the story, especially with the news peg of the NBA’s embrace of legalized sports gambling.
Here’s the thing: there will always be more drips and news hooks to bring the Donaghy scandal back into the public purview. It will never go away.
David Stern was right to understand that the Donaghy scandal would be a permanent stain on the sanctity of the NBA. He and the rest of the NBA infrastructure did well not to let the disgrace hobble the league in the immediate term, especially since it came in a particularly dark age for the league. This dark age started somewhere around Kobe Bryant’s rape allegations — which, in retrospect, everyone from the Lakers to the league to the media handled poorly — ended with the 2011 NBA lockout, and included the 2008 Seattle Sonics move, the league takeover of the New Orleans Hornets, and the fire sales of the Nets and Bobcats franchises. The Donaghy scandal was the centerpiece of the dark age.
Most fans were never going to give up on the NBA because a ref called some extra fouls in a regular-season game to make some side money. Most fans were also never going to believe the NBA’s party line that no games were actually affected, and that no other ref has ever violated the sanctity of the game by betting on the sport. Because segments of NBA fandom are primed to believe in NBA-related conspiracies in the first place, an actual NBA conspiracy wasn’t such a jolt. Instead of shocked faces, the scandal drew a whole lot of “I-told-you-so’s.”
That Donaghy implicated the league in the infamous Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals actually helped the NBA cruise through the immediate wreckage of the scandal. When that allegation was proven (or “proven”) false, the league was able to benefit from both the propensity of NBA-related conspiracies and the refutation of a specific Donaghy allegation, making him come off even less trustworthy in his other allegations of league malfeasance.
The ESPN report is valuable in connecting dots, providing another outlook on the game-fixing data, and reminding us what we know and what we still do not. It paints Stern in a horrible light, most notably by insinuating, without hard evidence, that the commissioner leaked the FBI’s investigation to the New York Post to hamstring the feds. (This is something most hardcore NBA fans can totally believe, but which even the Post reporter who broke the story denies.)
Beyond all of this, the ESPN report’s greatest achievement may be in proving that the Donaghy scandal has immense staying power. Even if its practical impact was limited to a few NBA rule reforms, a greater push for transparency, and a more strained relationship between the league and its referees, the stain is permanent. It will always be there, no matter how hard the league tries to scrub it out of existence.