It Happens More Than We Think

Posted by rtmsf on July 25th, 2007

Now that we’ve had a few days to mull over our thoughts with respect to this Tim Donaghy scandal, and after watching the Commish and High Priest of All Things Basketball grin and bear it through an excruciating (for him) press conference yesterday, we still find ourselves circling back to our initial thoughts when the news broke.

It happens more than we think.   

Sports Betting is Cool 

Yes, it’s horrible and it shows a lack of oversight of its refs by the L and it calls into question the very integrity of the game that Stern and his predecessors have worked so hard for so long to  ensure… 

And it raises valid questions about the possibility of other officials involved, other leagues involved, other (gasp) players involved, the plausibility of collusion, whether this is an isolated incident, and what, if anything, the lords of professional and amateur sports can do to contain it or snuff it out completely… 

And yet, the simple answer is that they can’t.

We like to imagine that this kind of thing can only happen in far-flung places in sports far inferior to ours, the kinds of places where officials have one foot on the field and one in the smoky backroom pub scene that gives rise to the incentive in the first place (are we talkin’ about this or are we talkin’ about this??).  The kinds of places where institutional shadiness is the rule for getting anything done.   The kinds of places where judges fix Olympic matches and sporting heroes are eliminated for their on-field transgressions.  After all, we live in the USA –  the land of internal controls and open transparency and due diligence and audit trails and CYA and watchers of the watchers of the watchers, right?  Right?

So how much are your Enron or Worldcom shares worth these days? 

So where are those shifty WMDs located after all?

So when does OJ come up for parole again at San Quentin?  

Sports Bookie  

Does Your Guy Offer Teasers?

This is not to say that we buy into the avalanche of conspiracy theories that were already surrounding the NBA prior to last Friday.  All those chirping Suns fans need to pipe down – Donaghy betting the Over didn’t make your team lose.  However, we also mustn’t keep our heads in the sand here.  Stern told us yesterday and he’s going to preach the mantra again and again that this was an isolated incident of a lone gunman referee.  But doesn’t your gut tell you that, while Donaghy probably acted alone here, there have been others in the past?  Maybe there are others now? 

When we heard that the ACC, attempting to capitalize on the NBA’s bad publicity to tout its own integrity, stated that they spend $135 on a background check of each of its officials, we couldn’t contain our hearty guffaws.  The Big Ten makes an identical claim.  While kudos are in order that these two leagues are doing something to show that its hired hands possess a modicum of integrity, we know for a fact that a simple background check revealing a very basic civil/criminal and credit history gives minimal information with respect to whether someone is a closet gambler or would become compromised to the point of taking money to impact spreads.  How do we know this?  Well, as we were formerly under the employ of a company specializing in “security consulting,” we understand that any deliverable under $1000 each for this type of work will be fraught with gaping holes in coverage and generally suspect as a useful tool – it’s simply not enough.

And what about the 29 other D1 leagues and their officials?  Is anyone doing background checks on these guys?  Is anyone evaluating their calls with the same gusto that the NBA and NFL does (and yet, Donaghy still slipped under the radar until the FBI overheard his name on its mob-related wiretaps).  According to Stern, Donaghy (a 13-year veteran) was making a hefty $260k/year (a first-year NBA official will make $85k).  MLB umpires start at $88k and range up to $300k/year.  As essentially part-timers, NFL referees make between $42k – $121k/year.  What about NCAA refs?  In college basketball, they work as independent contractors and get paid approximately $2000 per game – as an example, Ted Valentine worked 98 games last season, so his annual salary would have been $196k.  In college football, the requirement of more officials equals less pay, averaging around $1100 per game for each.

Referee with Bob Knight   

Is $100k-$200k Enough for NCAA Refs? 

Where there’s a vacuum, there is an incentive.  At the professional level, the officials on the floor/field make at best 10% of the league average of the players.  In college officialdom, the money isn’t as good as their professional peers and the oversight is accordingly weaker.  What this means is that, if done correctly selectively, by keeping it completely to yourself (read: online betting using false credentials and third-party transaction services – hello IRS audit!) or with one trusted associate, and appropriately obfuscating the winnings, it is virtually impossible to determine whether a Mountain West or Sun Belt or Big 12 or SEC official is influencing pointspreads and/or outcomes for personal enrichment.  He could earn several extra thousand dollars per week (not enough to move the Vegas lines) without so much as an eyebrow raised.       

The professional leagues like to claim that this never happens, but we already know that it does.  What about the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Pete Rose, Tim Donaghy and even perhaps the sacred cow of the NFL, who according to investigative writer Dan Moldea, at least seventy games were fixed throughout the 1950s-70s?  At least nowadays we can rest assured that these leagues are on notice for corruption, even if as in the case here with Donaghy, it is not outed earlier.   The NCAA environment, however, is more ripe for corruption of this type, with its witch’s brew of amateur players, not-as-well-compensated officials and an incredible lack of oversight from most leagues.  Can the Pac-10, for example, show how each official calling games in its league did ATS and O/U for the last four years to sniff out evidence of possible corruption?  Doubtful.   

Flamingl LV

Found in John Clougherty’s Pockets!

A recent statistical analysis from the Wharton School at Penn suggests that one percent (~500) of NCAA basketball games from 1989-2005 fell into an outlier that suggests gambling-related pointspread corruption.  This dovetails with a 2003 NCAA report that states that 1.1% of NCAA football players and 0.5% of NCAA basketball players accepted money to play poorly in a game (extrapolating from the sample suggests that this affects ~21 basketball and ~112 football players annually).  Somehow the math isn’t adding up (500 games/17 seasons = ~30 affected games/year in NCAA basketball) – what could possibly account for that difference? 

While we can’t find an example of an NCAA official becoming involved in a pointshaving scandal like what we’ve seen at Boston College, Arizona State and Northwestern in recent years, we have no doubt that it occurs – much like Donaghy until he got busted, they’re probably just better at hiding it.     

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Tim Donaghy Scandal Fallout

Posted by rtmsf on July 21st, 2007

Much is going to be made over the next week over the disclosure broken Friday by the New York Post that Tim Donaghy, a veteran NBA referee, allegedly became heavily indebted through illegal gambling and was using his position as an official to manipulate point spreads by proxy of organized crime. In other words… pointshaving, quite possibly the dirtiest word in sports. The only good news for the NBA was that the news hit on a summer Friday afternoon after a week of wall-to-wall Michael Vick and Barry Bonds-related outrage coverage.

Tim Donaghy and Kobe

“Kobe, do you think you could help a fellow Philadelphian out here?”

The outcry already predictably ranges from the overtly dismissive from Nate Jones at AOL Fanhouse:

For some reason the ref story isn’t that big of a deal to me. Unless of course it comes out that the ref is 2006 Finals MVP Bennett Salvatore. I feel like there are bad apples in EVERY organization. So it’s not a surprise that one ref out of all of the refs in the history of basketball decided to go down the gambling route.

And Greg Anthony at

While some who are critical of the NBA point to this being an organization’s problem, I see this more as probably one man’s human error.

To Bomani Jones of Page 2 accusing NBA brass of negligence for not sniffing this out sooner through its review process:

Should the reports be true, Donaghy worked for a league that couldn’t catch on to what he was doing. For all we know, the NBA couldn’t tell if Donaghy was blind as Jose Feliciano or as connected as Jack Molinas. In spite of having mountains of data on officiating, enough to produce a rebuttal to a scholarly paper about whether foul calls are affected by the race of the referee and the player whistled for the infraction, the NBA apparently couldn’t tell something was awry. That’s all bad for the NBA, and probably worse than it would be for any other league. After decades of cockamamie conspiracy theories and a season that will be remembered more for tanking than playing, the last thing the NBA needs is anything that could give credence to any allegations of shady business. Especially if the shade was brought on by negligence. Absolutely, corruption is worse than incompetence. But what’s worse than both of them? Hiring someone corrupt and not knowing any better.

To using this incident as a proactive agent of change, as Mark Cuban suggests in blog maverick:

Every company of any size has had a problem(s) that its CEO and stakeholders have lost sleep over. Its the law of big numbers. If enough things go on, something is going to go wrong. Products get recalled or are tampered with. There are workplace disasters. There is corruption. No industry is immune. Churches, consumer products, law enforcement, cars, planes, trains and plenty more. No profession is immune. From the CEO who misrepresents corporate numbers or events at the expense of shareholders, to the doorman who tips himself from the cover charge at the expense of the club owner, people of every profession make bad decisions. Shit happens. Bad Shit happens. When it does, there are two options. Cry over it and do nothing or recognize the problem and do the best you possibly can to not only fix it, but make the entire organization stronger.

To the downright apocalyptic from Jennifer Engel at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:

Whatever his previous failings, and his handling of that little Suns-Spurs brouhaha immediately jumps to mind, Stern obviously understands what is in danger of being lost. You. The fan. The guy who is left wondering what, if anything, you saw in the NBA was real. He understands this poses a far more insidious danger to his league than Vick does to the NFL or Bonds to Major League Baseball. They can make Vick go away. Bonds eventually will go away. Doubt is far tougher to suspend. Which is why the NBA has scoreboard on every other sport for the worst of the bad weeks.

To the Vegas reaction from NBA aficianado David Aldridge:

There was no detectable change in betting patterns in Las Vegas casinos on NBA games during the last couple of years, according to Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton and spoke by telephone today. “We usually hear something if there’s some unusual movement or unusual betting patterns. . . . There’s usually some kind of discussions about them. We don’t remember anything like that,” Kornegay said. Kornegay said he wasn’t concerned about taking action on NBA games in the future. Sports book betting makes up only about 2 percent of all betting action, he said “We are a very well-regulated industry out here, and I have all the faith in the world in our system,” he said. “I’m more disappointed than concerned. It doesn’t just shake the NBA; it shakes the whole sports world.”

To the silly, from

But in another way, this is really good for the league. Fine, some games–most likely regular season ones, which everyone agrees mean nothing–were competitively tainted. Yet this most ordinary of sports scandals might serve as a reality check on all the stupid shit people say about the NBA. This is how things are weird in a sport; the commish doesn’t write the script for the postseason in advance, the refs are programmed to give close calls to whoever garners the highest ratings, and China isn’t secretly controlling the whole thing from behind the muslin curtain.

To Marty Burns at discussing the referees’ collective feelings:

We’re angry. We’re angry. That’s for sure,” he said. “It’s not fair that one guy, one bad apple, brings down the whole officiating [staff]. It’ll trickle down to the college game, too. Every controversial call at the end of a game, somebody will question it… “I am sick of having to defend ourselves. We just got over the IRS thing, and now we have to defend ourselves all over again.”

To the deserving self-aggrandizement of Unsilent at Deadspin for “calling it” (did he have money on which ref it was?):

Just as I predicted Donaghy was identified as the target of the FBI’s gambling investigation. […] Of all the refs I heckled last year there were only two that could really piss me off. One was a dick (Steve Javie) and the other was either the most incompetent referee alive or a soulless shell of humanity with mob ties. I have no idea whether he had money riding on any of the seven Wizards games I watched him work this season, but it sure would clear things up a bit.

To Jack McCallum at quoting pejorative attacks on the man’s character:

The league source close to Philly put it this way: “He’s the kind of guy who is always in fights. When he was a kid, you’d see him throwing rocks at cars. He’s just an asshole. No one likes the guy. He’s always in fights on the golf course, that kind of thing. He’s a very antagonistic guy. When you have too many enemies, one of them comes back to bite you.”

In other words, a little bit of everything. Already we’re seeing evidence of every local NBA paper taking a closer look at games in which Donaghy worked. Feel free to interpret “worked” in any way you choose there. We’ll be back tomorrow with a closer look at how we feel sports gambling potentially impacts sports at both the collegiate and professional levels. Our essential conclusion is that this sort of thing happens a lot more than we all think. Unfortunately.

Update:  Simmons puts his ten cents worth here while Henry Abbott at TrueHoop and Dan Shanoff call for transparency.

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The basketBollettieri school?

Posted by rtmsf on May 10th, 2007

One interesting piece of news that came out this week was that Der Commisar of Hoopdom, David Stern, is floating the idea of building and maintaining a “basketball academy” of elite high schoolers, similar to those that already exist in tennis and golf. The obvious impetus for this idea is the embarrassing performances of USA, er, NBA Basketball in recent international competitions, which has been (rightly or wrongly) excoriated in the national media as predicated on a glaring lack of player fundamentals such as shooting, boxing out, and solid defense.

David Stern

While there is absolutely no question that the current system dominated by AAU basketball is a broken one, we’re not sure that Stern’s basketball academy is the answer. For starters, the academy would only take “several dozen” underclassmen in a given year, which begs several questions: who would be selecting these 8th, 9th and 10th graders as the chosen ones? What role would politics play in getting a certain kid into the program (see: McDonalds All-American game)? Since scholarships are not tied to performance on the courth, how do we handle the late bloomers (Tracy McGrady) and the early phenoms who don’t progress past age 16 (Schea Cotton)? Would these kids then be pressured to attend certain “most-favored” schools by virtue of their newfound pedigree? The larger question is left unsaid, but Arn Tellem touched on it in his thoughtful LA Times op-ed this week. This program seeks to help the top 30 or so players in a given year to keep their heads on straight, but what about the hundreds of other kids who end up at NCAA programs every year as well? Is this a basketball-based or an education-based decision? There are so many questions that would need to be answered before we could definitively state whether this is a good idea or not.

What we like about this idea is that someone on high is finally addressing the problems that exist in the cesspool that is known as the AAU and summer basketball circuit. We’ve had the privilege of attending a few of these events and can say without reservation that many of the same problems derives directly from the me-first mentality of this scene. Maybe Stern’s basketball academy or something similar can help to emphasize education and basketball fundamentals amongst the very best players. Maybe not. But the key point here is that there is recognition of the existence of a problem, and important people are talking about how to fix it, which is a start.

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