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.
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?
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.
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.
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.