Donaghy’s Disturbing Tell-All Talk at IF

Donaghy fouled his life up.

Tim Donaghy has plenty of shocking truths to tell about his fall from grace as an NBA referee.  It was shocking for many in the Idea Festival audience Friday to hear how Donaghy won 80 percent of his bets on NBA games using his knowledge of injuries, players, owners and coaches. It was shocking to learn that he wasn’t just making bets for himself, but was feeding his info to the mob, and that he’d get a couple grand for every pick he gave them, which amounted to more than 100 NBA games.

It was shocking to hear how he became an informant on organized crime for the FBI, that he had a tough time with fellow inmates in prison, that he lost everything because he couldn’t give up the thrill of winning bets on games, some of which he participated in. No, he says, the league examined tape and determined he never altered the result of a game by making calls that favored a team he was betting on. Wink, wink.

Donaghy became the “rogue ref” in the league’s eyes, he said, because the NBA needed him to appear to be a lone wolf, someone who sacrificed the integrity of the game to make a few bucks. The league’s lawyers, who Donaghy made to sound like henchmen, prevented the original publication of his tell-all book and tried to get CBS to cancel its interview with him on 60 Minutes. Donaghy said CBS told the NBA to fuhgeddaboudit, but Random House canceled its publication in 2009. Donaghy eventually found a little-known Florida publisher to get the book, Personal Foul,  out.

On Friday, Donaghy was contrite in taking responsibility for his actions. His delivery was stiff, odd for a guy who says he’s trying to make a living as a sports-radio host. He only dodged one question. The father of four daughters, when asked about his relationship with his family, first mentioned his parents and then his daughters, but never told what happened to his marriage, which ended during his 15-month imprisonment, according to this NY Times piece.

All of us who watch sports want to believe that referees are impartial, that they call them as they see them. But in basketball, especially, foul calls are open to judgment by the referee.  Yes, Donaghy said, refs do hold grudges against certain players, and knowing that a superstar might be on the bench with 3 fouls in the first quarter because of a relationship he has with the guy calling the game? Well, that’s the kind of info Donaghy knew and used to place bets. He got to know team trainers, who told him if a player was unlikely to play well because of some kind of sickness or injury.

The most disturbing part of Donaghy’s talk was his admission to what seems obvious — referees have personalities and feelings and opinions about players, coaches and owners.  Those feelings do influence what’s called, and ultimately the outcome of games.  For Donaghy, capitalizing on that knowledge was, briefly, a damn good way to know how games would turn out.

So I’m not working up any sympathy for Donaghy — a guy who had it all and was at the top of his profession, but fouled things up because he had an obsession with the thrill of winning a bet.