NBA betting scandal: Q&A with new book's author

Apr 14, 2011 |
The Tim Donaghy betting scandal had been accumulating a little rust, but got back in the limelight with the recent release of a new book which delves into the issue in detail.

Written by Penn State Abington professor Sean Patrick Griffin, it profiles gambler Jimmy Battista, Battista’s long relationship with Donaghy and exactly how the referee wagered on NBA games that he officiated.

The book is entitled "Gaming the Game," with the subtitle "The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made it Happen." It’s particularly noteworthy today as the NBA playoffs are about to get under way. spoke with Griffin, and the author answered 10 key questions about the scandal and its aftermath:
You’ve written about the Philadelphia mob in another book.  How do the gritty gamblers you dealt with in the Donaghy book compare to the mob guys?

It is tough to generalize, of course, but the one thing that strikes you about the white-collar pro gamblers is their unreal work ethic. The crowd I researched for Gaming the Game (including Jimmy Battista) is notorious for its long business hours at the expense of all sorts of things such as time with their families. 

Far from the glamorous lifestyle one might expect, especially since much activity predictably takes place in Las Vegas, what you find instead are men who are prisoners to their computers, flat screen TVs, and cell phones.

Have you read Tim Donaghy’s book and did it motivate or influence you to write your own book?

Yes, I have read his book many times (for various purposes). Regarding the second part of your question, however, no. The research for what ultimately became Gaming the Game began in March 2008, long before Donaghy’s book was released in December 2009. This is why I was able to so quickly discredit much of what Donaghy writes and says; I was more than a year-and-a-half into the project by the time his latest claims became known. 

Also don’t forget that the NBA betting scandal only accounts for about half of Gaming the Game; the rest examines the world’s most consequential sports gamblers and how that underworld operates (i.e., manipulation of betting lines, millions of dollars being wagered – how, where, and why, the obtaining and trading of inside information as currency, etc.). 

Did you begin the project with any preconceived notions about gambling and were they corroborated or altered?

Not really. I’m not a gambler, myself, but I have friends who are and I am huge sports fan, so I’ve always been keenly aware of the gambling aspect of things. My research agenda is largely focused on organized crime, which necessarily entails sports bookmaking and betting. 

Despite all of this, so little has been written about big-time pro gamblers – the ones who bet on sports for a living, manipulate lines, and who bet in such large sums each day that sportsbooks in Vegas and offshore pay quite serious attention to their activities – that there was little to corroborate in the first place.

The main source in the book is Jimmy Battista, and you say that you conducted painstaking research to verify the information that he gave you. Did he tell you anything (of significance) that didn’t check out?

As I explain in the book, there was nothing of consequence that Battista claimed to me in interviews that was later refuted. The key thing for people to understand is that Gaming the Game relies upon a vast array of law enforcement and court documents, hundreds of news articles, and more than 100 interviews of persons involved in Battista’s decades-long gambling career. 

The interview subjects included Battista’s colleagues from different places and times during his career, not to mention some of his outright adversaries. Additionally, numerous law enforcement officials at all levels of government were tracked down and interviewed regarding Battista’s background and claims. 
Thus, I could quite easily support or refute most of what he said regarding all sorts of significant activities (criminal and otherwise), and there was never an occasion where his account or explanation of some noteworthy activity was discredited. 

You conclude that Donaghy fixed the result of games he officiated, yet the FBI and NBA come to another conclusion despite what you believe is strong evidence. Any opinion why?

Needless to say, this issue is examined in much detail throughout Gaming the Game, and addressing it in abbreviated fashion here will be quite a challenge.

For starters, neither the FBI nor the NBA “concluded” that Tim Donaghy had not fixed games. To the contrary, federal authorities would not agree to a plea agreement with Donaghy until he admitted that he “compromised his objectivity as a referee because of his financial interest in the outcome of NBA games, and that his personal interest might have subconsciously affected his on-court performance.” 

Regarding the negotiations with Donaghy about Donaghy’s on-court performance necessarily being affected by his bets, one agent said, “We went back and forth with that a hundred times. He didn’t want to make that admission.” Law enforcement officials insisted to me that they would never have consented to a plea deal if Donaghy had not made this admission. 

Regarding the damning evidence I have obtained and assessed which all points to Donaghy fixing games, please understand that the FBI never had access to Jimmy Battista or to his all-important betting records. Federal officials were also without access to certain pro gamblers who were wagering on games Donaghy officiated dating back years, and they never researched betting line movements on Donaghy’s games in comparison to other NBA games, etc. 

With all of this in mind, and in consideration of the fact there were no wiretapped conversations of the conspirators, you can understand why authorities were content with their case once Donaghy pleaded guilty to defrauding the NBA and admitted that he may have subconsciously altered game outcomes. 

We’ll never know, of course, how the case against Donaghy would have transpired if federal authorities possessed the mountain of compelling data I’ve compiled when Donaghy approached them in June 2007.

As for what little the NBA said on this matter, please recall that Jimmy Battista, Tommy Martino and Tim Donaghy each declined to cooperate with the league’s “study” of the scandal, as did federal authorities. The NBA’s investigation was therefore a very superficial one, at best, and the official report merely says that researchers were “unable to contradict” the government’s findings.
Did you receive any indication that any other referees gambled on or fixed games?

Battista says he has no knowledge of other NBA referees gambling on NBA games, much less on their own games or, especially, fixing games. None of the evidence I reviewed – from the betting records to betting lines to confidential FBI files to interviews with pro gamblers and law enforcement officials – suggests other NBA referees were betting on NBA games.

This is covered in the book, but please explain your reason(s) for not interviewing Donaghy.

As I mentioned previously, my research began in the spring of 2008. At the time, I assumed I would attempt to interview all three conspirators (Battista, Martino, and Donaghy; Martino later declined apparently because he was considering his own book). 

Importantly, by the time Donaghy was released from prison in late 2009 and ostensibly available for an interview, I was deep into the project and knew there were significant flaws in what he had told federal authorities. Importantly, vis-à-vis requesting an interview with Donaghy, he released a book immediately upon his release from prison. 

In the book and during numerous related media appearances, he elaborated upon and/or exaggerated his existing dubious claims. Simply put, Tim Donaghy is not a credible source. In fact, I am surprised more people haven’t noticed the numerous, significant, repeated, and demonstrably false statements he makes in the book and during related media appearances (which is precisely why I felt compelled to create a web site – - devoted exclusively to an evidence-based critique of Donaghy’s myriad post-November 2009 claims). 

Readers will note what federal officials with direct knowledge of the scandal cases have to say about Donaghy and his claims, and how his assertions stand up against the documented record. 

Donaghy was a lifetime gambler with friends in the gambling industry who also happened to be a good-enough referee to make it to the NBA. Would all of those elements have to be in play for another NBA referee betting scandal to take place

Not necessarily, although Donaghy’s circumstances certainly made it much more likely. Gaming the Game includes some fascinating commentary from Battista about why he was privy to so much information from other inside sources, including referees (college, not pro), during his lengthy career.

In short, insiders (i.e., players, coaches, trainers, referees) with gambling backgrounds are prime targets for exploitation because they often owe people within the betting industry and thus are agreeable to providing inside information – if not worse – as a means of paying off debts and/or so that they may continue betting. 

In your opinion, has the NBA done enough to ensure that gambling/fixing does not happen again?

I don’t believe the NBA has done enough to make sure another referee betting scandal doesn’t occur.  For example, Kenny White, the former CEO and lead oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the world's largest oddsmaking company, researched betting trends involving Tim Donaghy and submitted a report to the NBA in the fall of 2007. Of this situation, White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "They never called back to discuss it or anything." 

Similarly, NBA officials repeatedly declined to entertain my requests for interviews and data during the research for the project. Even after Gaming the Game was published, they have not contacted me to go over my findings, etc., even though the book ends with some suggested research for the NBA. Combined with the serious flaws mentioned prior regarding the NBA’s scandal study, we are left to wonder how serious the league is in understanding what happened during the scandal from 2003-07 in the first place, let alone about instituting appropriate reforms.  

What has been the reaction to the book among NBA fans? Have you heard from any gamblers?

The common theme I have heard from NBA fans, especially, is that before they read Gaming the Game they thought they knew the scandal story. Once they got into the book, they realized how necessarily superficial (and often outright inaccurate) what little they read and heard was.

This was for good reason, of course, since until now, no one knew what Tommy Martino and other cooperating government witnesses had told the FBI, much less interviewed Jimmy Battista, other pro gamblers, and those persons in federal law enforcement who worked the scandal cases. 

The reaction from the gambling community has been overwhelming and very rewarding. That crowd is predictably far more preoccupied with my description of the mechanics of big-time sports betting. 

Interestingly, I have heard from pro gamblers and novices alike, each with their own favorite parts of the book. Like any author, I am always glad to hear from people who know their craft approving of what I write about their respective worlds.

Gaming the Game is a unique book in that regard because multiple persons involved in the story (from the gambling and law enforcement communities) have contacted me to say I “got it right”. It’s that kind of validation, beyond any media praise, which makes the sacrifices spanning three years of research and writing worthwhile.

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