Commentary

Donaghy scandal offers serious lessons for NBA

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:15 PM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

A federal judge in Brooklyn on Tuesday sentenced disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy to 15 months in prison. Although the sentencing is a conclusion to an investigation and prosecution that began a bit more than a year ago, some questions have not yet been answered. Here are some of the remaining questions and their answers:

Is the sentence of 15 months in prison a surprise? Is it a stiff sentence or a lenient sentence?

Yes, the length of the sentence is a surprise. It is a surprisingly stiff sentence. Donaghy was quick to assist the government in its investigation of gambling on NBA games. He was the only one of the three men charged who cooperated in the investigation, and his information was the foundation of the prosecutions of James Battista, the professional gambler who led the scheme, and Thomas Martino, the high school pal who passed information from Donaghy to Battista. Federal prosecutors depend on cooperating witnesses. A witness who helps the investigation ordinarily is rewarded with a significant reduction in prison time. Early in May, prosecutors filed what is known as a "5K letter," telling the judge that Donaghy's information defined the "crux of the crime." A 5K letter is usually a stay-out-of-jail-free card. But Donaghy was not rewarded for his cooperation. If the prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon had followed their usual practices and protocols, Donaghy would have been sentenced to five or six months in jail.

Why was Judge Amon so hard on Donaghy?

Donaghy was the centerpiece of a national scandal. In the glare of the NBA's worst nightmare, it would have been difficult for the judge to grant a lighter sentence. She was not the only one under pressure from the scandal and its extensive coverage. Even though prosecutors supported Donaghy in some court papers that supported less time in prison, they also responded to the scandal and backed away from him in court papers filed more recently. In addition to the notoriety and the media coverage, the judge and prosecutors seemed to respond to enormous pressures from the NBA. The NBA hired two "boutique" law firms that focus on criminal cases in the federal system, firms that include numerous former federal prosecutors on their rosters. Using their network of connections, the NBA's lawyers made it clear to all involved that this was not the usual case in which the cooperating witness should be rewarded.

Is this the end? Is the NBA gambling scandal over?

Yes, it is over. It is highly unlikely that any other referees will be investigated or charged. The FBI has Donaghy's telephone records. It has tracked down thousands of calls, and it has found no one else involved in gambling with Donaghy. If there had been others involved, the federal agents would have found them and charged them by now. Donaghy gave federal agents other information about other referees and league officials manipulating games to protect NBA stars and to increase television ratings. The FBI checked on that information. Court papers indicate that the FBI believed Donaghy had been truthful in these assertions. However, there have been no criminal charges resulting from these allegations because the FBI concluded that no crimes had been committed. The alleged game manipulation may be offensive to fans. It may be unethical. But it did not rise to the level of a federal crime. Other assertions from Donaghy were so old that the statute of limitations had expired, and the FBI did not even investigate them.

How much time will Donaghy actually spend in prison?

A prisoner in the federal penitentiary system typically serves 85 percent of the sentence ordered by the judge. Donaghy will serve about a year. If he is able to work his way into a prison treatment program, he could cut his sentence by a few months. It is clear that he suffers from a gambling disorder, but prison officials are often slow to grant any sort of break or favor to a celebrity inmate. He will start his incarceration in late September, and is likely to be released early in October of 2009.

What lessons does the Donaghy scandal offer?

There are two aspects of the Donaghy scandal that are scary and should draw the immediate attention of NBA commissioner David Stern. The first is that Donaghy began betting on NBA games in 2003. For four years, the NBA knew nothing about his gambling despite an elaborate system of supervision and evaluation of referees. The NBA did not discover Donaghy's gambling. The FBI discovered it and described it to NBA officials. Stern and the league need to take a serious look at their management of their 60 referees.

The second, and perhaps more important, revelation from the scandal is Donaghy's phenomenal success in predicting the outcomes of NBA games. Although the information is incomplete, we know that Donaghy was successful in picking 37 of 47 games. That is the kind of success that will make gamblers wealthy. What was the basis of Donaghy's success? According to federal prosecutors, he used his position as a referee to learn the identities of officiating crews for specific games, his knowledge of relationships between referees and players and "team personnel," and his knowledge of the "physical condition of certain players." Should that knowledge be enough to predict the winner of a regular-season NBA game nearly 80 percent of the time? Shouldn't LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant have more impact on outcomes? Shouldn't coaching, scouting, conditioning and preparation be greater factors? Isn't there something wrong with a competition whose outcome is so dependent on the identities of the referees? Although they are unlikely to discuss it publicly, Stern and the NBA must be concerned about the incredible success that resulted from Donaghy's fairly limited information.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.