NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games

A veteran referee, Tim Donaghy put the integrity of the National Basketball Association at risk by gambling on basketball games, including those in the postseason, and making calls that may have affected games. Professional basketball referees in the United States are not permitted to gamble, except at racetracks during the NBA off-season. Donaghy was sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison.

Summary of Event

Gambling is a mixed blessing for organized sports. While betting by fans increases interest in spectator sports, some gamblers may seek to influence the outcomes of games to win money. The professional leagues have strict rules that protect the integrity of their particular sport by prohibiting gambling by players and officials. Professional baseball’s 1919 Chicago Black Sox Black Sox scandal scandal is perhaps the best-known episode of players throwing a game for money. A 1951 collegiate basketball scandal over point Point shaving in basketball shaving almost killed the sport at the college level. Players and Coaches;basketball coaches at the professional level have been fined or suspended for betting on games, but no official had been caught in a betting scandal before referee Tim Donaghy was caught in 2007. [kw]NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games (July 29, 2008)
[kw]Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games, NBA Referee Tim (July 29, 2008)
Basketball;and gambling[gambling]
National Basketball Association;Tim Donaghy[Donaghy]
Donaghy, Tim
Stern, David
Basketball;and gambling[gambling]
National Basketball Association;Tim Donaghy[Donaghy]
Donaghy, Tim
Stern, David
[g]United States;July 29, 2008: NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games[03870]
[c]Gambling;July 29, 2008: NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games[03870]
[c]Corruption;July 29, 2008: NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games[03870]
[c]Ethics;July 29, 2008: NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games[03870]
[c]Law and the courts;July 29, 2008: NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games[03870]
[c]Sports;July 29, 2008: NBA Referee Tim Donaghy Is Sentenced to Prison for Betting on Games[03870]

Tim Donaghy leaves federal court in Brooklyn, New York, after his sentencing on July 29, 2008.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Donaghy, a referee with a stellar background, was respected by National Basketball Association (NBA) administrators. He officiated in 772 regular season games and 20 playoff games in a career that spanned thirteen seasons. He played college basketball at Villanova University and is the son of a respected former college basketball referee, Jerry Donaghy, and the nephew of former NBA referee Bill Oakes. Donaghy worked his way into the NBA, serving apprenticeships as a Pennsylvania high school referee and, for seven seasons, as an official with the Continental Basketball Association, a lesser-known professional league in the United States. In 1994, he became one of only sixty NBA referees.

Donaghy had two previous brushes with scandal during his officiating career, but he could not be blamed for either incident. In 2003, he called a technical foul on Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trail Blazers for throwing a ball at another official during a game. Wallace subsequently confronted Donaghy after the game, screamed obscenities, and issued threats. The NBA suspended Wallace for seven games. On November 19, 2004, Donaghy was one of three referees who worked the infamous Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers contest that ended with players from Indiana fighting Pistons fans in the stands.

By 2007, Donaghy earned $260,000 annually. He also had an addiction to gambling and gained a reputation among his peers as someone who was unusually eager to make a few more dollars. In 2003, he reportedly punched former high school classmate and fellow referee Joe Crawford in the face during an NBA referees’ camp in New Jersey. It appears Donaghy did so because Crawford did not invite him to a morning television show that paid $500 for an appearance. Furthermore, although respected for his officiating, Donaghy apparently had few friends among his colleagues.

In 2003, Donaghy began placing bets on NBA games with a friend. In mid-December, 2006, Battista, James James Battista, a professional gambler with the nicknames Baba and Sheep, confronted Donaghy about betting on NBA games and suggested that Donaghy be paid for his correct pick. Donaghy began calling Martino, Thomas Thomas Martino, who would then call Battista to give him inside information, including what crew would officiate a particular game and how officials and players interacted. Cell phone records indicate hundreds of calls among Donaghy, Battista, and Martino between October 1, 2006, and May 1, 2007.

On June 20, 2007, the FBI contacted the NBA to discuss allegations that a referee was gambling on games—charges that reportedly surfaced in a separate investigation of organized-crime activities. Donaghy resigned in July amid rumors that the FBI was investigating him for betting on games that he officiated during the prior four seasons and that he made calls affecting the point spread in those games. NBA commissioner David Stern called Donaghy a rogue who betrayed the league. He stated that the situation was the worst that he had experienced as an NBA fan, NBA lawyer, or NBA commissioner. Stern also stated that he would have fired Donaghy but was advised not to by the FBI because of the ongoing investigation.

In subsequent court papers, the FBI did not specify games in which Donaghy officiated and also allegedly placed bets. The court documents did indicate that Donaghy provided a tip about an NBA game on December 13, 2006, during which he officiated—Boston Celtics-76ers game in Philadelphia. The point spread moved 2 points before tip-off—a sizable swing—with Boston going from a 1.5-point favorite to a 3.5-point choice. Boston ultimately won by 20 points. The next day, Donaghy met with coconspirators to receive a $5,000 cash payment for his tip. He also was rumored to have improperly influenced the outcome of game three of the Western Conference semifinal match between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.

On August 15, 2007, Donaghy pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn, New York, federal court to two felony charges involving conspiracy to commit wire fraud as part of a scheme to defraud the NBA and conspiracy to transmit wagering information across state lines. The first charge carried a penalty of up to twenty years in prison while the second could bring an additional five years. Donaghy admitted taking cash payoffs from gamblers and betting on games that he officiated. He told the court that between December, 2006, and April, 2007, he had used “nonpublic information” to pick the winners of particular NBA games and to cover the point spread set by professional bookmakers. Other individuals would then use Donaghy’s picks to place bets. He admitted making phone calls to communicate his picks, often using a coded language. If a pick did not win, Donaghy would not be paid, but he would not lose money either.

Donaghy also agreed to turn over the names of about twenty former colleagues who bet at golf courses, racetracks during the season, and casinos, and who also participated in Football;and gambling[gambling] football betting pools. The activities are not illegal in themselves but do violate the letter of the referees’ contract with the NBA. Donaghy was released on a $250,000 bond and was sentenced on July 29, 2008, to fifteen months in federal prison and three years of supervised release.

To the public, Donaghy offered a general apology, claiming he was the victim of pressure from the Gambino Mafia;Gambino family Mafia crime family. At his sentencing, he told the judge, “I’ve brought shame on myself, my family, and the profession.” Two others also were sentenced. Battista and Thomas Martino, a friend of Battista, were sentenced to fifteen months and to twelve months, one day in prison, respectively. All three were ordered jointly to pay $217,000 in restitution to the federal government. On September 23, 2008, Donaghy reported to the federal prison in Pensacola, Florida, to begin serving his term.


Donaghy’s actions badly damaged the reputation of NBA referees and officiating. In the wake of the case, fans upset by calls began to yell “fix” or “How much do you have on the game?” at referees. Hurt and confused by the scandal, many referees sharply condemned Donaghy for betraying his friends in the league. Some referees pointed out that a zero-tolerance approach to gambling by the NBA would result in about 75 percent of referees being fired for doing everything from playing in a $5 card game to pulling the levers on slot machines in casinos. Officials are allowed to attend shows at casinos during the off-season, but they are not permitted to enter gambling areas. NBA officials acknowledged that casual gambling existed among their ranks, but they feared that Donaghy would exaggerate the extent of the gambling to better his own situation. The NBA stated that it had received no evidence that any referee other than Donaghy bet on games.

A number of NBA fans charged that the league conspired to fix games. Such allegations infuriated NBA commissioner David Stern, who resented claims that he and the league were engaged in criminal activity. Donaghy’s betting embarrassed the league and gave support to conspiracy-minded fans. Both the league and the referees sought to prevent a repeat of the Donaghy scandal for the sake of the future of the sport. The NBA opened a review into its gambling policies and how it hires, trains, and monitors officials. In August, 2007, an attorney with the National Basketball Referees Association National Basketball Referees Association represented the union in connection with the NBA’s review of its basketball operations and officiating programs. Referee crews and supervisors afterward had to review all games on videotape. Every late call that impinges on the point spread is apt to be red-flagged for additional review, a practice that did not exist before the Donaghy scandal. Basketball;and gambling[gambling]
National Basketball Association;Tim Donaghy[Donaghy]
Donaghy, Tim
Stern, David

Further Reading

  • Brenner, Reuven, Gabrielle A. Brenner, and Aaron Brown. A World of Chance: Betting on Religion, Games, Wall Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. In this wide-ranging academic study of betting in human society, the authors contend that with widespread gambling in sports, the corruption of referees such as Donaghy becomes inevitable.
  • Kirchberg, Connie. Hoop Lore: A History of the National Basketball Association. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. This exhaustive study presents a history of the National Basketball Association.
  • Schwarz, Alan, and William K. Rashbaum. “N.B.A. Referee Is the Focus of a Federal Inquiry.” The New York Times, July 21, 2007. A brief but helpful news report outlining the details of the Donaghy gambling scandal.

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