Tim Donaghy had never had it so good. A referee in the National Basketball Association, he loved the limelight, was considered one of the NBA’s better refs and was making almost $300,000 a year. But he was also living a secret life during the last four years of his 13 year career – he committed a personal foul.
He betrayed the fans and the league by betting on NBA games, including some he was officiating. Donaghy won about 75 percent of his bets, an incredible percentage confirmed by the FBI.
Now Donaghy speaks out publicly for the first time, telling 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon why he bet on NBA games, how he won so often, and how his world collapsed. And what a world it was.
Donaghy says being a referee was his dream job. “I had the opportunity to run up and down the court with the greatest athletes in the world. I just loved the game of basketball growing up and my goal was to somehow be a part of it.”
“It was a dream situation all around,” he added.
“And then you committed the cardinal sin. You started betting on NBA games including games that you were reffing yourself,” Simon remarked. “What were you thinking?”
“Obviously, I wasn’t thinking to cross that line,” Donaghy said.
He told Simon he thought he did it because he fell into an addiction of gambling.
Asked how that addiction began, Donaghy told Simon, “Playing golf at country clubs and card games at country clubs and people’s houses. And it just evolved from those type of situations to betting on athletic contests.”
Donaghy was betraying everything he and his family stood for. His father had been a respected ref in college basketball; Tim followed in his footsteps and went even further, making it to the NBA.
But Donaghy said betting was more powerful than all of that, and winning was ecstasy.
Asked if betting on the NBA gave him a higher high than betting on other sports, Donaghy said, “I think it gave me a higher high because I was able to predict the outcome of the games. And I think when you talk about gambling and the euphoria that comes with it, making winning picks is what excites you.”
“And as far as you know, you were the only ref who was placing bets?” Simon asked.
“As far as I understand, yes,” Donaghy said.
He told Simon he bet on “probably over 100 games,” reffing a lot of those himself.
And here’s what you may find difficult to believe: Donaghy says that while his betting may have been illegal, his reffing was always honest.
“You’re insisting that your betting did not influence the way you called a game. Why should we believe you?” Simon asked.
“Because the FBI did a thorough investigation, and even the NBA concluded that I did not fix games in the NBA,” Donaghy replied.
That’s right. A 29-year FBI veteran, Special Agent Philip Scala, led the investigation of Donaghy. He told us that Donaghy convinced him.
“He said, ‘Knowing the information that I had, I didn’t have to do anything on the court to pick a winner. I could pick a winner 80 percent of the time just knowing what I knew an hour before the game,'” Scala said. “And watching the tapes we could see that there was never something outlandish where you could see he called a foul or he omitted a foul because he wanted to see a certain team win. We never saw that.”
The NBA’s investigation came to the same surprising conclusion: “It seems plausible to us that Donaghy may not have manipulated games… We are unable to contradict the government’s conclusion.”
“When you were reffing a game, didn’t it come to your mind that you’d bet on one team and not on the other?” Simon asked.
“I tried to put it out of my mind. And I think that that I was able to do that,” Donaghy said.
“In one game you were betting on San Antonio, but you threw their coach Greg Popovich out of the game,” Simon pointed out.
“I didn’t think about the bet during the game. And in my mind, he needed to be ejected,” Donaghy said.
Losing their coach cost San Antonio the game and cost Donaghy his bet. But that didn’t happen very often: Donaghy claims – and the FBI concurs – that he won 70 to 80 percent of his NBA bets.
“You told the FBI, this is a quote, ‘You don’t realize how easy this was for me knowing what I knew,'” Simon said. “What exactly did you know?”
“I knew that there were certain relationships that existed between referees and players, referees and coaches, and referees and owners that influence the point spreads in games,” Donaghy explained.
Asked what a point spread is, Donaghy said, “A point spread is where a team is favored to win or lose by a certain amount of points.”
“You say that certain refs like or dislike certain players? Certain coaches? Certain general managers?” Simon asked.
“And certain owners,” Donaghy added.
“You told us ‘I knew these guys. Knew who they liked, who they despised and who they would help or screw over,'” Simon said.
For example, Donaghy cited tempestuous superstar Allen Iverson. Some refs liked him, some did not. Natural enough.
But Donaghy said several refs would let their feelings influence their calls by either favoring Iverson or favoring his opponents. And that would affect the score.
“And I knew those relationships, whether they were positive or negative had an effect on the game,” Donaghy said.
“So, you know when Iverson was playing. And you knew which refs were there. You knew whether to bet on the Iverson team or on the other team?” Simon asked.
“Yes,” Donaghy said.
“Iverson wouldn’t talk to us, he didn’t want refs to get mad at him. But his manager told us that the way the refs were treating him, some for, some against, made him sick,” Simon remarked.
“I do believe Allen Iverson knew this. And I believe all the players know this. That certain referees treat them much better than others,” Donaghy said.
Donaghy told us that two years ago Iverson had incurred the wrath of the refs.
“He had threatened one of our officials and the NBA fined him $25,000. And we felt as a group that he should have been suspended. And because he wasn’t, we felt like we would teach him a lesson,” Donaghy recalled.
When he worked an Iverson game on Jan. 6, 2007, he bet against Iverson’s team.
“Because you knew that all the refs were gunning for him? This was openly discussed?” Simon asked.
“Openly discussed,” Donaghy claimed. “And I knew that the other two referees and I sought out to do a little justice of our own.”
The refs quickly called curious fouls on Iverson, including rarely called fouls for palming. It threw his game off, and his team lost.
“According to the game’s announcers, even late in the game, you kept hurting Iverson’s team by letting defenders bludgeon him without calling any fouls,” Simon told Donaghy, before showing him video footage of the game.
“We’re looking at a foul that was let go,” Donaghy acknowledged. “Obviously in the pregame meetings we came to the conclusion that we were not gonna give Allen Iverson any marginal plays for the basket. And that absolutely should have been called a foul that I and the other referees passed on.”
Asked if anyone in the NBA knew about it, Donaghy said, “There was a group supervisor at the game that came in at half time who was laughing and stated that he felt that Iverson had gotten the message.”
Donaghy said the supervisor approved his punishment of Iverson.
The NBA would not let that supervisor or any of its refs talk to us.
In that game, Donaghy did make calls that helped him win his bet. But, he insists that wasn’t the point. He says all he wanted to do was punish Iverson. But yes, he did win his bet.
Special Agent Philip Scala, who retired from the FBI last year, told Simon Donaghy would bet on a game when he knew who the refs were, and that they felt strongly about certain players.
Asked what that tells him about how certain refs call games, Scala said, “Most of the refs we believed were honest and calling the game as they had seen it. There was this aspect of judgment. A person should understand his bias and make sure he leaves that on the sideline.”
“But obviously that wasn’t the case or else Donaghy wouldn’t have been picking 80 percent of the games,” Simon pointed out.
“There seemed to be some bleeding in that area,” Scala said.
“Some bleeding sounds to me like an understatement?” Simon asked.
“Could be,” Scala acknowledged.
“Now you say that Donaghy cooperated with you. If he had lied to you he would have faced a much longer sentence, no?” Simon asked.
“Yeah,” Scala said. “As long as he was completely honest and omitted nothing, the FBI would stand by him. If we ever found out that there was a lie, that cooperation agreement would be ripped up.”
“And that never happened,” he added.
Donaghy told the FBI – and 60 Minutes – that NBA headquarters inadvertently helped him pick winners by sending refs instructions before a game.
For example, he says he won several bets in a row by putting his money on the Los Angeles Lakers because he knew the league was going to favor their star, Kobe Bryant. He knew it because the Lakers had complained that refs had missed calling fouls on defenders who had been blocking Bryant.
“The Lakers had sent in a CD of 25 plays that they felt calls were missed when Kobe Bryant went to the basket. And I understood from the NBA office that 22 of those plays were missed by the referees. And I knew that Kobe Bryant was basically gonna be given the opportunity to go to the foul line if somebody as much as breathed on him,” Donaghy said.
The NBA says its instructions to refs are meant to improve officiating. But Donaghy says those directives made it easy for him to pick winners.
“Because it was inside information along the lines of knowing that a certain stock was gonna be bought out before the opening bell on the stock market. So, it’s almost a guarantee,” Donaghy said.
“Here’s more of what you did. You would telephone refs who were about to officiate a game and pump them for information before the game. What kind of information were you looking for?” Simon asked.
“If there was a situation where there was a payback in order from a previous game,” Donaghy said. “Injuries certainly played a factor. Just little gossip conversations that I would use in making a pick.”
But Donaghy said the other refs didn’t know he was using that “gossip” to place bets.
“So, you were betraying your fellow referees,” Simon remarked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Donaghy acknowledged.
One former ref who feels betrayed is Mike Mathis, who used to head the referees’ union. He told us that refs speak openly among themselves about their personal prejudices.
“In locker rooms, okay, referees do talk about players,” Mathis said. “If a guy is sittin’ there sayin’ he don’t like so and so and this guy does this and he won’t, you know, keep his mouth shut…dada dada dah, I can see where he could take that information and use it.”
But Mathis said he was stunned that Donaghy actually did use it to place bets.
Asked what he thinks of what Donaghy did, Mathis said, “It’s reprehensible. It took a career of mine, 25 years and sort of washed it down the toilet.”
Mathis said there’s “no doubt” Donaghy spoiled the reputation of his fellow refs.
Donaghy said Mathis is a man he respects, and that he agrees with his assessment that his actions were “reprehensible.”
“Did you feel that you were doing something wrong?” Simon asked.
“Sure,” Donaghy said. “But obviously it was it was easy and it was exciting. And I actually didn’t realize the consequences of my actions.”
“You didn’t know that you were doing something that could get you into trouble?” Simon asked.
“Obviously it was in the back of my head. But I think you just go with the notion that you’re not gonna be caught,” Donaghy said.
Asked if he thought he could get away with it, Donaghy said, “Yes.”
And Donaghy might well have gotten away with it. He might still be reffing and betting today. But he fell in with the mob.
Donaghy was placing those bets through a friend. He was too scared of getting caught to do it himself. And their winning streak went on uninterrupted for three years. But in the fourth year, that friend let slip that he was getting his betting tips from an NBA ref.
The mob found out about it and wanted in on the action. That’s when Donaghy discovered what it means to be really scared.
It started outside a hotel at Philadelphia’s airport: the FBI says two men associated with the Gambino crime family requested a meeting with Donaghy and took him for a ride.
“They came down and picked me up,” Donaghy remembered. “They basically told me that I needed to give them the picks. And if I didn’t that it’s a possibility that somebody would go down and visit my wife and kids in Florida.”
Donaghy said he believed them and was scared. From then on his picks were relayed to the mob.
Asked how he communicated his bets to the mob, Donaghy said, “I would discuss it with a high school friend of mine, who would pass the information along to them.”
There was a code. “The code was if I want them to be the home team, I would discuss his brother Chuck. And if I wanted him to bet the visiting team, I would mention his brother Johnny,” Donaghy explained.
FBI Special Agent Scala told Simon the FBI made a very conservative estimate that the mob made at least a few million dollars off Donaghy’s picks.
Donaghy said the mob was paying him $2,000 per correct pick – peanuts considering they were making millions.
Asked why he didn’t ask for more money, Donaghy said, “It wasn’t about the money, at that point… It was just about getting through the season and hoping that’d end it.”
Because the mob put a lot of money on his picks, they were not good losers. We told you that in one game, Donaghy threw out the coach of the team they were betting on. That cost the mob the bet and they were not happy.
“They had questions as to why I did it,” Donaghy remembered. “I just told them that I wasn’t making calls in games to win, influence the outcome. And no I’m not gonna be able to obviously predict the winner every night. And you know, they have to accept that that’s what’s gonna happen.”
Asked if the mobsters accepted that, Donaghy told Simon, “I’m not sure that they accepted it or not, but that was the information that I passed to them.”
As it turned out, his mob connection brought him down.
The FBI, which was monitoring mob phone calls, heard that an NBA ref was betting on games. The information made it to Special Agent Scala, who headed the FBI’s Gambino family task force.
“One of the case agents had come into my office and said that they had information from a wire tap stating that there was huge sums of money being made and that someone thought that a ref may be involved,” Scala remembered.
“So if you hadn’t gotten involved with the mob you might still be out there reffing and betting on your own games?” Simon asked.
“Possibly,” Donaghy admitted.
“So your big mistake was getting involved with the mob?” Simon asked.
“No, my big mistake was crossing that line where I bet in the first place,” Donaghy said.
Donaghy said it was a “sickening” feeling when he realized the FBI knew of his betting activities.
“Once you were caught you decided to come clean and cooperate. Why?” Simon asked.
“I knew I did something that was obviously a bad choice. And I decided that moving forward it was not only in my best interest but my family’s best interest to try and cut my losses,” Donaghy said.
“You call it a bad choice. Isn’t that something of an understatement?” Simon asked.
“Sure. It was a horrible choice,” Donaghy said.
He cooperated with the FBI to get a lighter sentence, but that exposed him to some dark problems.
Donaghy said the mob contacted him by phone, making death threats. Asked if he believed the threats, he told Simon, “I wasn’t sure.”
He was sentenced to one year in prison, where he found he was not safe from the mob. He was threatened, then attacked.
“There was one guy who claimed that he was associated with the mob, and that he was gonna get a gun and eventually blow my head off and break my knee caps,” Donaghy remembered.
His head was untouched, but months later, one knee still needs therapy. “He whacked me with a stick. And did some damage to my knee,” he explained.
And now that he’s out, he is still worried about retribution from the mob. “Well certainly it’s in the back of my mind. And, but I’m not gonna live my life in fear. I was informed by the FBI agents that they certainly had an eye on what they called, ‘these wise guys.’ And if anything would come up, they would inform me immediately.”
“Do you believe that you would be protected?” Simon asked.
“Yes, I do,” Donaghy replied.
Convicted of wire fraud and passing betting tips across state lines, Donaghy spent 11 months of his sentence in prison and was released last month. He could well have been sentenced to more than five years if he hadn’t cooperated. His two mob cohorts, Thomas “The Doctor” Martino and James “The Sheep” Battista, denied ever threatening Donaghy and got sentences of 15 months; and one year.
Donaghy not only confessed his own sins to the FBI, he also blew the whistle on the NBA. He claimed that in the playoffs the NBA does everything possible to extend series and to help big market teams advance.
Longer playoffs with those chosen teams mean more money for the NBA. The association denies it and says Donaghy was making wild allegations hoping to reduce his sentence.
Commissioner David Stern declined to speak with 60 Minutes or to let us interview his refs. He didn’t want the league to participate in a report about Donaghy.
“NBA Commissioner David Stern and other referees say that you have no credibility. You’re a convicted felon, not to be trusted. They say refs are professionals and all this stuff about their personal feelings influencing the way they call games is nonsense,” Simon remarked.
“I would say they have a very valid point. But I would again point back to the investigation that the FBI conducted and the fact that I was 100 percent truthful with them,” Donaghy said.
“The FBI said that they believed you that you were honest. But that does not necessarily mean that you’re correct. You may have believed the NBA was tilting the playing field, but that doesn’t mean that they actually did so,” Simon said.
“I would answer with the fact that I was still able to pick the games at 70, 80 percent correct rate,” Donaghy replied.
He estimates that over the four years of betting on NBA games, he probably profited around $100,000.
Asked where that money is today, Donaghy said, “Some of it’s at casinos. Some of it’s paid off football debts. Some of it’s paid off luxury items for our house.”
Now Donaghy has written a book titled “Personal Foul” published by the VTI Group after Random House dropped it. It’s about his betting scandal and his allegations against the NBA. But the league is striking back.
“They keep trying to paint me as the rogue referee,” Donaghy said.
“Aren’t you the rogue referee?” Simon asked.
“I certainly made some terrible choices to do what I did, but the culture that existed within the game of the NBA enabled me to be able to do this at a very successful rate,” Donaghy said.
“You’ve said that to you basketball represented a discipline, tradition, fairness and integrity. You betrayed all of that, didn’t you?” Simon asked.
“Yes. I did,” Donaghy said.
Asked if he has learned to live with himself, Donaghy said, “It’s tough.”
He conceded that he had brought it on himself.
“What is the moral of your story? What message are you trying to put out?” Simon asked.
“We all have choices to make in life. And when we decide to go down that wrong road we’d be better off backing up and realizing that not only do you affect your life with some terrible choices, but the lives of people you love the most, and that’s your family,” Donaghy said.
He told Simon his actions had “ruined” his family.
His wife divorced him and has custody of their four daughters. Ironically, Donaghy says his scandal has actually improved NBA officiating because the league has made various changes to prevent refs from letting their biases influence their calls.
Donaghy, who told Simon he was involved with the game of basketball his entire life, said he hasn’t watched a game in two years.
“What do you think would happen if you turned on your TV and watched a basketball game?” Simon asked.
“I would wish that I was out on the floor refereeing it,” Donaghy replied.
But it’s something Donaghy said he’ll never do again.