How Tim Donaghy's NBA Betting Antics Made Him A Target Of The Mob

The FBI shocked the world of pro basketball back in 2007 when they exposed an NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, for profiting by giving sports bettors his picks on who would win the games he was officiating. After several years of betting on games himself, he began feeding tips to an intermediary who passed them on to others. Donaghy was paid $2,000 per game for the tips, later $5,000. He communicated with the intermediary by speaking in code on burner phones. During the 2006-2007 NBA season, Donaghy made picks on the 40 games he officiated, but by the summer of 2007, the scheme had been exposed and Donaghy had to resign (via ESPN).

Debate continues as to whether or not Donaghy fixed the games in question. The NBA's probe into his activities found that he had not influenced the outcomes of the games. They maintained that fixing NBA games was "impossible," per ESPN. A federal investigation suggested the same thing. However, Donaghy's own comments on the subject have been contradictory. He privately admitted fixing games to several people. A gambler who knew him claimed he called more fouls on the team he'd picked to lose. For their article on the subject, ESPN reviewed Donaghy's games from the 2006-2007 season and concluded that his calls favored the team he had picked to win about 70% of the time.

Donaghy's crooked refereeing landed him in hot water with the NBA, the feds, and some more dangerous parties.

Donaghy received death threats

Donaghy was caught partially because of his ties to the New York mafia, specifically the Gambino family. The family has a full-time FBI unit investigating them, according to ESPN, and that unit received a tip that an NBA referee was involved in black market gambling, and the Gambinos were profiting from it.

Donaghy later said it was a little more complicated than that. The Gambinos had found out about a betting scheme he had going with some friends and associates and demanded he give them the same tips. They threatened to hurt his wife and children if he refused, per Reuters. This wasn't the first time he had been threatened, Donaghy said. An old classmate, Jimmy Battista, had extorted him into making NBA betting picks for him by saying, "You don't want anyone 'from New York' coming to your house" (via ESPN).

The FBI started trying to determine who the crooked referee was, and they built a "spiderweb" of Gambino connections that eventually led them to Donaghy, per ESPN. Donaghy cooperated with the FBI to get a lighter jail sentence, which further angered his mob connections. He began to receive death threats on his home phone (via Reuters). In jail, he was attacked by another prisoner claiming to have ties to the New York mafia. Donaghy's knee was injured so badly he needed surgery, according to NBC Miami.

Donaghy on sports betting and the mob

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law banning commercial sports gambling in most of the country. According to The New York Times, the original law limited a state's ability to legalize sports gambling within its borders. What had before been conducted clandestinely, on the black market, or in Las Vegas, could suddenly be done legally. Not long afterward, Donaghy commented on the decision to 730 The Game, a Michigan radio station. Donaghy was in favor of the decision, citing the tax dollars the U.S. was losing to other countries when Americans gambled via foreign, online entities. He also said the ability to regulate sports betting would be important (via Sports Handle).

In the same interview, he commented on the link between sports betting and organized crime. He speculated the mafia would lose money based on the legalization of sports betting, because they had been conducting much of the illegal, underground betting, serving as bookmakers. This was one of the reasons, he said, that sports gambling needed government oversight. "It's going to hurt [the mob] a little bit," he said.