Yet another betting scandal has come to the forefront, this time it involves NBA referee Tim Donaghy. So far, the allegations have not pinpointed any specific games under suspicion.
What has been disclosed is that the FBI is investigating games Donaghy officiated over the last two years to see if he intentionally made calls to influence the betting outcome.
Though the media has used the term “pointspread,” it is unclear whether they are aware of the gambling distinction meaning Donaghy’s bets were against the spread as opposed to betting totals.
I’ve watched as some of my colleagues have tried in vain to find a statistical smoking gun. Nobody has and in truth, in lieu of specific information such as how many games were involved and whether such bets were on pointspread, moneyline or over/under, etc. there is not likely to be damning evidence found in any database.
Instead, I will try a different approach of getting into the mind of a potential game fixer. If hypothetically I wanted to influence the betting outcome of an NBA game with the aid of an NBA ref, how would I do it without leaving telltale signs?
First and foremost, as a handicapper I am always looking for an edge, never naively banking on a sure thing. In other words, I never have, nor ever will bet the mortgage on any one game, but instead will look to hit 57 percent or higher over the long run.
Hence, with the knowledge that one referee in a three man crew could not with 100 percent certainty fix any one game without being apparent, my theoretical collusion with a referee would involve achieving the desired gambling result at least 60 percent of the time over a series of games.
Because the accusations do involve games over the previous two years, this appears to be a likely scenario.
Also I would focus on over/unders. This way a referee need not favor any one team. Not only would this make it much easier to conceal a bias, but if Donaghy were looking for ethical clearance, he can easily convince himself that his unfairness is not favoring either team, instead only affecting the flow of the game.
In such circumstances, a referee need only be much more aggressive in calling fouls, getting both teams in the penalty early and often. Furthermore, all borderline calls would come at the defensive end. What’s a charge?
And finally a referee could see to it the defensive specialists on each team would get into foul trouble early. Let’s say Detroit is playing Chicago. I would order my co-conspirator ref to make sure Ben Wallace gets a quick whistle. But I’m not favoring Detroit, because their defensive guru Tayshaun Prince will also get whistled early and often.
Knowing that the top defensive players on each team will be limited in minutes and that each team will likely make more than normally expected trips to the free throw line more than qualifies as an “edge” to the gambler.
Of course once those teams get in the penalty nice and early, as part of the plan, the referee would be instructed that anytime a good free throw shooter is as much as breathed on, he’s going to the line. Simply put, there need not be preferential treatment towards any one team, just towards both offenses or in other theoretic situations, each defense.
It’s no coincidence I chose the Bulls and Pistons as a hypothetical illustration. Games with low totals going over or high totals going under would be the type of bets that would have the highest probability of influencing without being glaringly obvious.
Alas, according to the referee database at Covers.com, in the 2006-07 season, games Donaghy officiated went over 10-of-12 times if the posted total were 184.5 or less. Yet if the total were 205 or more, it went under at an 11-7 rate.
Far from a smoking gun, but when all details come out, it’s the educated opinion of this gambling veteran that the above imaginary scenarios will prove to be very close to the truth. I’ll even bet on it.
Joe Duffy is former General Manager of the Freescoreboard scorephone network and CEO of OffshoreInsiders.com, the premier hub of world-class handicappers.