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Breach of Integrity Still Undermines NBA Ref Credibility 17 Years Later

Note: information on Tim Donaghy and the situation surrounding him was taken from a piece published by ESPN on July 9, 2020, by Scott Eden.

On Monday night, Sacramento Kings Head Coach Mike Brown was ejected for arguing with officials against a call in the fourth quarter of a 142-143 overtime heartbreaker in Milwaukee against the Bucks. After he was finally removed from the court, Brown spent the rest of the game pulling up specific highlights from the game on a gray laptop in the visiting locker room, preparing for an epic post-game press conference rant.

As he sat down in front of reporters, Brown turned his laptop towards the cameras and began a clinical presentation, comparing several calls the referees had made for the Bucks and against the Kings, as well as calls that were not made for the Kings that he felt should have been, including a call that gave Bucks guard Damian Lillard three free throws and a DeAaron Fox drive that resulted in a miss he believed should have given Fox free throws for the Kings.

“The referees are human, and they’re going to make mistakes, but you hope that there’s just some sort of consistency and there’s some sort of communication between the refs,” Brown said as he clicked through his impromptu demonstration. “In my opinion, the consistency wasn’t here tonight.”

The Bucks ended up shooting 12 more free throws than the Kings in the game.

A few days earlier on January 10, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Darko Rajakovic ripped into referees in a similar manner, although he lacked the laptop presentation flair of Brown. In the fourth quarter of their one-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the referees awarded the Lakers 23 free throws, as opposed to two for the Raptors. The final disparity was 36 for the Lakers compared to 13 for the Raptors.

Rajakovic’s biggest issue was with how he felt the referees gave calls to LA stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis compared to the Raptors emerging star Scottie Barnes. Davis alone outshot the Raptors at the charity stripe by himself, going 13-14 from the line. James took six, making four. Barnes, who took more shots than either James or Davis, only took two.

“How is it possible that Scottie Barnes, who is [an] All-Star caliber player in this league, he goes to the rim every single time with force and trying to get to the rim without flopping and not trying to get foul calls? He gets two free throws for the whole game,” Rajakovic ranted. 

Brown was fined $50,000 for his presentation. Rajakovic was hit with a $25,000 fine.

These two instances are far from the only post-game tirades coaches have gone on against referees. Nineteen of the 30 current coaches in the NBA have been fined for remarks they’ve made about referees, with many who have stayed clean only being in their position for three years or less. Brown and Rajakovic are on the extreme side of fines against these coaches for their comments, but rarely does the monetary cost go below $10,000.

Players get hit with massive fines for criticizing referees as well. Everyone from LeBron James to Fred VanVleet has had tens of thousands of dollars taken from their paycheck when they air their frustrations with what they feel is biased refereeing. 

While officials in every sport are criticized and lambasted often for game-altering missed calls or perceived favoritism, the trust in NBA referees being able to make fair and consistent calls seems particularly low, especially among players and coaches. If the summer of 2007 is any indication, there’s a good reason.

It was that summer that referee Tim Donaghy got busted for taking payments from a gambling ring to affect the outcome of games. From 2003 until 2007, Donaghy would tilt his foul calling into one team or the other’s favor in order to win the massive bets the ring had placed. Until late 2006, Donaghy didn’t actually receive any money for his corruption. He was simply doing it to help out a friend. But that changed when a member of the ring approached him with an offer: for every game he successfully fixed, Donaghy would receive $2,000.

It didn’t take long for word to get to the FBI that there was intense betting happening on one referee’s games, with huge amounts of cash forcing betting lines to change overnight. They quickly traced Donaghy’s connections to the gambling ring, and soon after notified then-Commissioner of the NBA David Stern of their findings. Their plan was to wiretap Donaghy, who had quickly begun babbling about other NBA officials in order to save himself, to root out any other possible corruption. However, before they could carry out the covert operation, a whistleblower came to the New York Post and leaked the FBI’s findings.

The agents were flabbergasted, and many believed that a member of Stern’s staff was the one who croaked. The writer of the story for the Post himself, Murray Weiss, has denied that his source was connected to the NBA, as far as his knowledge goes. He did say, however, that he was contacted by someone on behalf of Stern who told him that if he was too critical of the NBA in his piece, there would be consequences. 

On top of this, Donaghy and the NBA have both denied that he, or anyone, “fixed” NBA games. Donaghy pleaded guilty to betting on his own games, but in public maintained that it was impossible to actually change the outcome of a game. In the name of protecting its branding and integrity, the NBA was forced to side with the man who was in the process of destroying it, agreeing that it was impossible. The special group of experts the NBA commissioned to watch Donaghy’s games also agreed, telling the court that it could not prove whether Donaghy made any calls that affected the outcome of the game in a significant enough way to say he “fixed” them.

There are many open-ended questions that arose after the courts could not prove that Donaghy had actually affected games in any way. What would the FBI have been able to find if Weiss hadn’t plastered it onto the front page of the New York Post? Would other referees have incriminated themselves? Was the NBA trying to cover any suspicious footprints, or was it genuinely just trying to preserve its image?

No matter how those questions would have been answered, severe damage had already been done. Immense gaps in free throw attempts in games gained even more intense scrutiny than before. Questionable calls and decisions from referees in the past were looked back on with Scandal-colored goggles, and suspicions were hiked up immediately. 

Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, where the Los Angeles Lakers were awarded three times as many free throw attempts as the Sacramento Kings in the fourth quarter, was suddenly not just a poor game by the officials, but also a game where the refs themselves could have had a stake in who won.

The Western Conference Semifinals between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, with one of the officials being none other than Tim Donaghy himself (a few weeks before he would be outed), also came into question. Donaghy has publicly stated that referees favored the Spurs in the series because head supervisor of the officials in the series, Tommy Nunez, “had a dislike of Suns owner Robert Sarver.” 

Star point guard Chris Paul has had a very public dispute with referee Scott Foster over the years. In playoff games that Foster officiates, Paul has an overall record of 3-17, including a stretch of losing 13 straight. After getting ejected in a game by Foster earlier this season, Paul elaborated on their beef, saying “We had a situation some years ago, and it’s personal… I had a meeting with him, my dad, Doc Rivers, Bob Mulaney, and all that [during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers]. It’s been a thing for a while.”

During the time frame that he was receiving bribes from the gambling ring, Donaghy had 126 phone calls with the bookie that supplied him with how he was supposed to affect the game that night, and the $2,000 prize if he managed to do it. In that same time frame, Donaghy called Foster 134 times, establishing a very strong link between the two, even if no other evidence has been brought to light of them being anything more than strong friends. His obvious connection to Donaghy and history with Paul has led him to be one of the least trusted officials in the NBA.

In the summer between the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons, referee Eric Lewis came under fire for allegedly using an anonymous account on social media to defend himself and other referees. Once the NBA began an investigation into it, Lewis promptly resigned, preventing any real findings.

Even without the knowledge of Donaghy’s illicit betting, these issues would call into question the integrity of those refereeing the games. However, with there being solid, concrete evidence of Donaghy not only betting on his own games but also conspiring with gamblers to give them inside knowledge, all of these instances are put under an even more stringent microscope. 

The NBA has not helped its case, as it often takes the side of refs in controversial calls or decisions, such as when they fine coaches for harsh words against them. Its handling of the Donaghy situation continues to be questioned, especially with its seeming lack of cooperation with authorities when they learned of the situation. Despite growing calls for more accountability from referees for poor or missed calls, from coaches, players, executives, and fans alike, Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA office have continued their unwavering faith and support in the integrity of its officials, which they carried on from Stern and his circle.

The lack of trust in NBA referees is not going to subside in the near future. The NBA seems content to keep it that way. This friction is bound to spark a fire that the NBA can’t douse as easily as they did the Donaghy scandal. The question is how they plan to put it out when it eventually does arise.

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