Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tim Donaghy -- a Black Day in July for the National Basketball Association

Black Friday began with the sports industry continuing their full-fledged onslaught directed at Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. By day’s end NBA referee Tim Donaghy alleged fixing of National Basketball Association over the last two years was in the process of pushing Michael Vick from the front page to sports’ back pages. As unimaginable as it may seem, the two biggest off-field/court sports stories of the year may be occurring within days of each other. The last two weeks of July, after the MLB All-Star Game and before NFL training camps and pre-season games get underway are traditionally quiet weeks in the industry. Who would have ever imagined not one but two titanic events occurring within days of each other, during the ‘dog days of summer’?

The NBA’s Black Friday began with The New York Post’s Murray Weiss breaking the news that 13-year NBA official Tim Donaghy allegedly made bets on basketball games, some of which he was officiating. The Post carried the breaking news on their front page – all to be had for only 25 cents. Great value and great reporting from a newspaper that rarely receives credit for reporting and breaking news.

According to Weiss: NBA referee Tim Donaghy is at the center of an FBI organized-crime probe after he allegedly made bets on basketball games, some of which he was officiating, the Post first reported.

Donaghy, a 13-year veteran of the NBA, resigned from the NBA two weeks ago.

The investigation, ongoing for the past year, focused on allegations that Donaghy, 40, was making calls to affect the point spread so that he and mobster cronies could cash in on large bests. The bets involved thousands of dollars and occurred during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seven seasons.

Donaghy knows of the investigation, originally reported on by the Post, and is planning on turning himself into officials next week.

The NBA who released a statement early Friday morning saying little "We have been asked by the FBI, with whom we are working closely, not to comment on this matter at this time."? reacted late Friday afternoon after the Post and ESPN broke the news the target of the FBI’s investigation was Tim Donaghy with a second statement,

NBA Commissioner David Stern has issued the following statement late Friday: “As we previously stated, we have been cooperating with the FBI in their investigation of allegations that a single NBA referee bet on NBA games that he officiated. As part of that cooperation, we were asked by the Government not to comment about the investigation, but in light of the widespread press coverage and the naming of the referee, Tim Donaghy, we consider it appropriate to make a fuller statement. We would like to assure our fans that no amount of effort, time or personnel is being spared to assist in this investigation, to bring to justice an individual who has betrayed the most sacred trust in professional sports, and to take the necessary steps to protect against this ever happening again. We will have more to say at a press conference that will be scheduled for next week.”

How serious are the potential charges against Donaghy. According to a New York Times report: Improperly influencing the outcome of games typically runs afoul of either the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or other federal and state statutes regarding mail and wire fraud.

Before Black Friday Donaghy’s claim to fame was the infamous Malice at Palace – the fight filled Indiana Pacers – Detroit Pistons game at the Palace at Auburn Hills on Nov. 19, 2004. That game ended after Ben Wallace, then of the Pistons, shoved Ron Artest, then of the Pacers, to incite one of the ugliest brawls in American sports history. Donaghy worked that game with Ronnie Garretson and Tommy Nunez Jr. While the reported allegations against Donaghy are focused on games he officiated during the last two years every basketball game Donaghy officiated in over his 13 year as an NBA official will come under tremendous scrutiny.

Who is Tim Donaghy? This from the NBA:

Age: 40
NBA experience: Referee in 772 regular-season games in 13 seasons
2005-06 season: 63 games; team officiated most often -- Trail Blazers (7 games)
2006-07 season: 68 games; team officiated most often -- Heat and 76ers (8 games)
High school: Cardinal O'Hara (Springfield, Pa.; one of four NBA refs to attend O'Hara)
College: Villanova, 1989
Of note: In his first dozen seasons as an NBA referee, worked 704 regular-season games and 15 playoffs ... Also has seven years of CBA officiating experience ... Played varsity baseball at Villanova ... Participated in the NBA Read to Achieve program.

In addition, Donaghy has seven years of CBA officiating experience, including the 1993 CBA All-Star Game, and five years of high school officiating experience in Pennsylvania.

The native Philadelphian played varsity baseball at Villanova University, and was named All-Catholic and All-Delaware County in baseball and All-Delaware County in basketball while at Cardinal O’Hara High School. Donaghy enjoys working in the community and volunteers regularly with Don Guanella students.

In another twist of fate at least three current NBA officials attended the same Philadelphia High School Donaghy went too: Joey Crawford, Mike Callahan, and Ed Malloy. NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Crawford indefinitely suspended for improper conduct toward Tim Duncan during the San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks game on April 15. Crawford wasn’t allowed to officiate during the 2007 NBA playoffs.

"Joey Crawford's handling of this situation failed to meet the standards of professionalism and game management we expect of NBA referees," said Stern. "Especially in light of similar prior acts by this official, a significant suspension is warranted. Although Joey is consistently rated as one of our top referees, he must be held accountable for his actions on the floor, and we will have further discussions with him following the season to be sure he understands his responsibilities."

It isn’t going to take a great deal for people to begin to connect Crawford to Donaghy, irregardless of the facts there is nothing to connect Crawford to the fixing allegations Donaghy is facing. The issue, whenever charges of gambling, betting and fixing sports events are linked to anyone almost inevitably others are inadvertently tainted with the same brush.

Along with what happened at the Palace at Auburn Hills the New York Times reported Friday evening two other ‘interesting incidents’ that involved games Donaghy officiated in, where he took center-stage in ‘embarrassing’ encounters with NBA players.

After officiating a game against the Portland Trail Blazers in January 2003, he was physically threatened by the temperamental Portland star Rasheed Wallace as they encountered each other in the arena’s loading dock. Wallace, whom Donaghy had called for a technical foul during the game, was suspended by the league for seven games; Donaghy was not reprimanded.

In April 2005, the Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, after Donaghy ejected him from a game, accused Donaghy of being biased against him. The Boston Globe reported that Rivers lodged a complaint with the league, but it appears the matter did not go much further.

Donaghy has faced controversy away from the basketball court as well. He was sued by a neighbor in a Pennsylvania civil court in January 2005 for yelling obscenities and setting fire to a tractor. The plaintiffs in that case, Peter and Lisa Mansueto of West Chester, Pa., declined to discuss how that case was resolved in a telephone interview last night.

Clearly there may have been issues with Tim Donaghy’s behavior the NBA missed.

According to the New York Post report the genesis of what may have led Donaghy down a path he felt he couldn’t escape from was related to gambling debts and in classic Soprano’s fashion came into contact with organized crime,

“That’s how he got himself into this predicament” by wagering with mob-connected bookies, one source said in the New York Post report.

The real questions and concerns that will be raised in the coming days and weeks – did Donaghy’s officiating ever change the outcome of an NBA game? Even suggesting that might have taken place isn’t just scary – if proven true could shake the National Basketball Association to its foundation.

According to a New York Times report an estimated $250 million is wagered on N.B.A. games annually, with most bettors predicting not which team will win, but whether the winner’s final margin of victory will be above or below a specific number.

When contacted by The New York Post two veteran Las Vegas bookmakers (the only state where sports gambling is legal) couldn’t say for certain if the outcome of any of the games Donaghy has officiated in the last two years were impacted by calls he made effected the outcome.

"At this point, it's too early to know if any games were affected," John Avello, at the Wynn resort on the Las Vegas Strip offered the Post, adding that no regulators or investigators had contacted him about the case.

Jay Kornegay, executive director of the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton, said he had never seen any unusual activity in NBA betting, and was surprised not to have heard about an investigation until Friday.

"Whispers would have happened on the street, and we would have heard something," Kornegay said. "Any type of suspicious or unusual movements, you usually hear in the industry. We’re so regulated and policed; any kind of suspicion would be discussed.

"We haven't seen anything like that in the NBA that I can remember," he said, "and we haven't been contacted by anybody."

"The allegations were new to us," said Mark Clayton, a Las Vegas control board member in an ESPN report. "However, we will continue to monitor them to ascertain whether there is any connection to Nevada's licensed sports books."

Again while there is nothing to connect the Donaghy allegations to any of Las Vegas’ legal sports betting operations – Black Friday isn’t going to help Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman’s interest in bringing an NBA franchise to Las Vegas, despite comments Goodman made in February when Las Vegas hosted the NBA All-Star Weekend.

Goodman argued that legalized gambling, monitored by the Nevada Gaming Commission, prevents these types of suspicious activities. While he may be right – the specter linking gambling to professional sports makes it that much more difficult for Goodman to sell Las Vegas to sports leagues (the NHL’s apparent interest not withstanding).

"We're the only regulatory agency in the world that really looks at unusual activity as far as the movement of the line and that type of conduct," he said. "I think it's a good thing that Las Vegas has the type of regulation that makes sure that bad things don't happen."

Black Friday hit other NBA officials (those who would go on the record) very hard as would be expected.

"I'm shocked, terribly shocked," said Gary Benson, an NBA official for 17 years who retired two years ago because of knee problems. "Those are people that you work with and that you literally -- you spend more time with those people than you do with your family."

David Stern has endured several serious challenges since he became NBA commissioner in 1984. Each and every time Stern rose to meet the challenge(s) he was forced to deal with:

In the 1997 NBA playoffs, the NBA suspended five players following a brawl between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat. Some of the suspensions were required by a league rule, implemented under Stern, which provides an automatic one-game suspension to any player who leaves his team's bench during a fight, such as the suspension in the 2007 Playoffs from the Suns-Spurs Game. Several players who had not gotten involved in the fight were also suspended, prompting complaints from officials on both teams.

In 2000, after it had been revealed that the Minnesota Timberwolves had tampered with Joe Smith two years earlier, the NBA league office punished Minnesota severely, voiding the last year of Smith's contract, fining the franchise $3.5 million and taking the Timberwolves' next five 1st-round NBA Draft picks. Although it was believed by many that tampering is a common practice, Stern abided by arbitrator Kenneth Dam's ruling that the Timberwolves had signed the secret agreement, and denied that the league was making an example of the Timberwolves.

Before the 2005-06 season, the NBA announced a new dress code, which banned players from wearing headphones, chains, shorts, sleeveless shirts, indoor sunglasses, T-shirts, jerseys and headgear such as baseball caps during public appearances. Allen Iverson criticized the policy: "They're targeting guys who dress like me, guys who dress hip-hop ... I think they went way overboard."

For the 2006-07 season the NBA introduced a new "microfiber" basketball for use in NBA games, replacing the previous style ball used since 1970. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban agreed with the need for a new ball, claiming the old style ball was inconsistent. Many of the league's most prominent players openly expressed their dislike for the new ball, such as Shaquille O'Neal who said, "Feels like one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store."

A study, financed by Cuban, claimed that the new ball "bounces 5 to 8% lower than typical leather balls when dropped from 4 feet... [and] the new ball bounces 30% more erratically." However, Stern initially refused to go back to the original ball despite many complaints by players with the new ball. Two months into the season Stern stated that the new ball may have been a poor choice and poorly tested and "we could've done a better job".

On December 11, 2006 the NBA announced that it would in fact switch back to the leather ball starting on January 1, 2007.

David Stern remains one of the strongest leaders in sports a respected man not afraid to make the tough decisions. Those sentiments aside “the third rail” of professional sports is gambling scandals. Betting scandals – can hurt the image of a sport, the public’s perception of that sport more seriously than steroids, dogfighting, anything. As forgiving as sports fans can be, as understanding as society wants to be for those who make mistakes and ask for forgiveness charges if proven that officials or athletes fixed the outcome of a sports event can destroy the foundation a sports league’s credibility is built on.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Donaghy officiated 68 games in the 2005-06 season and 63 games in 2006-07. He also worked 20 playoff games, including five last season -- Pistons-Magic on April 23; Warriors-Mavs on April 27; Suns-Lakers on April 29; Nets-Raptors on May 4; and Spurs-Suns on May 12. As unimaginable as it may seem – what if calls Donaghy made during any of those games changed the outcome of any of the games. Is it possible Tim Donaghy’s actions may have in anyway impacted on the San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA championship? And before anyone gets too excited – let’s remember how big an upset the Golden State Warriors first round upset of the Dallas Mavericks was, and Donaghy did one of the games in that series.

Friday, July 20, 2007 a Black Day for the National Basketball Association!!

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN, The New York Post, The New York Times and Wikipedia

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