Almost All NBA Referees Do This, According to Tim Donaghy

Gambling and sports go hand in hand when it comes to certain types of fans. People love the rush of potentially winning money on the outcome of the game, and to some, this is what guides their love of competition. When it comes to those directly involved in sports, however, gambling on their games is strictly forbidden for reasons that should be obvious.

Among the most famous examples of this is Tim Donaghy, a disgraced NBA referee who was caught not only gambling on games that he officiated but tipping off gamblers based on insider information from the league and other referees. According to him, however, he was not alone. 

NBA referee Tim Donaghy talks with Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan talks with referee Tim Donaghy |Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Tim Donaghy’s gambling

Donaghy’s gambling, at least when it came to the NBA while he was still employed, went back to 2003 according to ESPN. Although he claims he never consciously affected games with his officiating, this is a clear violation of the league’s rules involving the subject. David Stern, who was a commissioner at the time, tried to keep gambling as far away from the NBA as possible. 

What Donaghy did was tip off an old friend about who he believed was the odds-on favorite to win the game based on league mandates about fouls and other violations that would be cracked down upon regarding certain teams and players. It was a success, as Donaghy’s predictions gave the benefactors of his information an 88% success rate.

Donaghy has long been dismissed by the NBA and his former NBA referee peers as a lone wolf who was acting on his selfish desires. To this day, however, Donaghy claims that he was from alone when it came to gambling on games.

Do other NBA referees gamble?

When asked if other referees did what he did, Donaghy cited a former mafioso named Michael Franzese, who claimed to have three NBA referees working in his pocket before Donaghy had ever started working in the NBA. 

“I wasn’t the only one passing on information,” Donaghy said. “Was he paying them for [fixing games]? I don’t know what their setup was, but I’m sure he wasn’t giving them chocolate bars.”

Donaghy’s situation alone was a black eye on the NBA, and after so strongly denying that anyone else could have done with Donaghy did, it would be devastating for the league’s image if more information came forward and was corroborated. 

Aside from the gambling aspect, there are other benefits for referees to throw a game in one direction, especially in the playoffs. He has been outspoken about his claim that the 2002 Western Conference Finals were purposely extended another game for more league money and more money in the pockets of the referees, and he explained why series’ such as this can dictate the way a game is called. 

“When you talk about three referees supposedly making so many mistakes in a conference final game — where in America can you perform at that level of your job so poorly, and still go to the next level reffing the NBA Finals and getting another bonus of $20,000?” Donaghy asked. 

Donaghy has long claimed that Dick Bavetta, who officiated the infamous game 6 in that series, openly talked about how he was sent to those games to ensure game 7, although nobody else has corroborated this? 

Why would referees risk it all?

Gambling is a rush. Many people do it for money, but others do love the invigorating feeling of being able to risk something for an award, and even when it isn’t a literal gamble, as may be the case with the 2002 series, it still could lead to a rush, a financial gain, or a combination of the two that are appealing to referees or players. 

Outside of the Black Sox Scandal and Pete Rose, Donaghy might be the most infamous case of gambling in sports gone awry. By listening to him, even if there is some rightful doubt to the listener, we get a fascinating look at why, at least in his mind, such a problem exists in a more rampant way than we could ever know.