Saturday, December 5, 2009

60 Minutes on Donaghy's betting success

(Offscreen) Anchor: Yet, based on investigations by 60 Minutes and the FBI, was [Donaghy] actually influenced in the way he was refereeing?
CBS Correspondent Bob Simon: He says he didn't let his betting influence his games.  Now, this is rather hard to believe, but the FBI and the NBA thoroughly investigated him and they agree that he did not let his betting influence his games.

Anchor: However, he had an accuracy of about 70-80%, so how does he explain this?
Simon: He explains his accuracy by knowing the relationships that different refs had with different players, different general managers, and different owners.  He said that refs had biases; they liked certain players, disliked others, the same with managers and owners, and by knowing which refs were ref'ing which particular games, which teams, he then knew which team to bet on.

Whew.  Where to begin?!  The easiest issue to address is Donaghy's assertion that he won "70-80%" of his bets.  For starters, is this according to him, exclusively (i.e., not supported by the FBI, independent reporting, etc.)?  Next, is he saying he won "70-80%" of the 122-153 games he bet between 2003 and 2007? Lastly, though most importantly, is he claiming he had this (outrageous!) betting success rate for games he officiated and for NBA games he did not?  Let's hope that CBS at least asked him this last question.  Incidentally, I am giving 60 Minutes the benefit of the doubt by assuming the interview was taped before Donaghy's co-conspirator, pro gambler Jimmy Battista, finally spoke publicly last week.  As Battista explained to Bryant Gumbel on his HBO "Real Sports" program, the referee's "unheard of" betting win rate (37-10, or 78.7%) applied only to games Donaghy, himself, officiated.  According to Battista, Donaghy's bets on NBA games he didn't referee were so bad that the gambler ultimately stopped taking them.

Battista's claims are relevant especially when you consider Simon's assertion that "the FBI and the NBA thoroughly investigated him and they agree that he did not let his betting influence his games" (emphasis added).  Again, there is a written, official record we can reference for clarity on this issue of primacy.

According to the federal government, as quoted on p.27 of the NBA's Pedowitz Report, Donaghy admitted that he “compromised his objectivity as a referee because of his personal financial interest in the outcome of NBA games, and that this personal interest might have subconsciously affected his on-court performance."  Furthermore, regarding whether the FBI and/or the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York supposedly concluded Donaghy didn't alter the outcomes of games, let's look at what little has actually been said on this controversial topic (and please pay close attention to the government's choice of words - what is said and what isn't).

The government's brief statement on this issue is readily available on pp.15-16 of the Pedowitz Report: "There is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct."  That's it.  It is carefully worded, stopping far short from concluding anything, and for good reason.  Short of: incriminating wiretaps, cooperating witnesses and/or government informants (who could, for instance, claim a referee was explaining how the scheme worked or bragging about it, etc.), what other options remain to conclude whether or not a referee was fixing games?  Betting success rate?  According to whom, and are there valid records to support the claims?  Even if there was a credible witness who maintained such records, against whose betting success would the referee be compared to demonstrate he was altering the outcomes of games, and how would one determine what winning percentage was proof of game-fixing?  Some suggest reviewing Donaghy's game tapes.  Sure, worth a try, I suppose, but considering how subjective calls are in many sports including basketball, I think experts agree you'd be hard pressed to actually show that Donaghy "intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct."

There are two key remaining factors to consider vis-a-vis the government's assessment (to date) of Donaghy's possible game-fixing.  First, recall that his co-conspirator, pro gambler Jimmy Battista, has never been interviewed by the FBI.  Second, also recall that looking into the possibility an NBA referee was altering the outcomes of games was far removed from the original intent of the FBI investigation, and it is quite possible determining the fixing of games was never a major FBI concern.  To my knowledge, no one has asked the FBI precisely how interested they were in possible game-fixing, and precisely what efforts were made to assess this.  Given these two concerns, let's turn to Simon's assertions that "the NBA thoroughly investigated" Donaghy and that "they agree [with the FBI] that he did not let his betting influence his games".  Pay attention to the soft and vague language - and the repeated assumptions - in the NBA's Pedowitz Report:

"We have no reason to doubt the thoroughness of the government’s investigation on which it based its conclusion. We believe that the government would have been naturally skeptical of Donaghy’s assertion that he did not go beyond exploiting “inside” information and did not intentionally make calls to influence the outcome of games. Before concluding that there was no evidence that Donaghy intentionally made incorrect calls, the government investigators doubtless questioned Donaghy carefully about the specific non-public information on which he based his picks, and his conduct while officiating those sixteen games. Because the NBA provided video of games that Donaghy officiated, the government also would have had the opportunity to review these games and to cross-examine Donaghy ― and assess the logic of his explanations and his demeanor. While we do not know what Donaghy told the government, he clearly convinced them that he had not manipulated these games" (p. 28, emphasis added).

In addition to the apparent lack of access to the FBI, the NBA/Pedowitz group did not have access to gambler Jimmy Battista or to referee Tim Donaghy.  Without the two key conspirators, the NBA was left to assume the federal government had treated possible game-fixing with the same degree of seriousness the league ostensibly would have (if only in-house) - and to find other avenues of investigation.  According the the Pedowitz group, they reviewed several of Donaghy's game tapes, and interviewed scores of NBA referees, NBA experts, and sports betting experts, resulting in the following conclusion (p.33): 

"Given the information currently in our possession, we and the League’s experts are unable to contradict the government’s conclusion that '[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct'” (emphasis added).  This tepid statement is a far cry from the one suggested by Bob Simon in the CBS piece and cited above, namely that the NBA has matter-of-factly concluded that "Tim Donaghy did not let his betting influence his games."

All of the above has been in the public domain (as evidenced by my incessant linking), and was thus readily available to CBS/60 Minutes and to any other news organizations which cared to look.  Needless to say, my 20+ months of research into this subject matter - complete with my exclusive access to former pro gambler Battista - have afforded me a MUCH more detailed and nuanced understanding of the above that the public has not seen or considered.  Gaming the Game: The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made It Happen will be the most comprehensive treatment of this story available.