‘Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul’ Explained – How Did Tim Donaghy Almost Bring The Entire NBA Down?


In its latest release, titled “Operation Flagrant Foul,” the sports documentary series “Untold” brings to the fore the 2007 NBA Betting Scandal that involved allegations of multiple NBA referees intentionally siding with certain results for personal benefits. Despite these allegations, though, it was ultimately only Tim Donaghy who was found guilty, and the way all this unfolded was no less suspicious either. With many still believing that the NBA itself, and erstwhile commissioner of the Association, David Stern, might have had something to do with the whole scandal, “Operation Flagrant Foul” brings all this back into discussion with a delightful presentation.

Spoilers Ahead

Who Is Tim Donaghy? What Is His Story?

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County, Tim Donaghy was enthralled by basketball from a young age, and seeing the 76ers win the 1983 championships further strengthened his desire to be associated with the NBA. With a number of NBA referees hailing from Delaware at the time, and his own father being a successful referee of the sport at the college level, Tim decided to pursue the same profession. He attended an NBA camp in California and landed himself duties to officiate in the CBA, which was the erstwhile professional basketball minor league. It was during this time that he met, fell in love with, and married Kim Strupp Donaghy, who remained his wife until an eventual fallout in 2007. After years of working in the CBA, Tim was finally called up to the NBA in 1994, making his ultimate dreams come true. In his very first game after being hired by the NBA, a match-off between Indiana and Houston, Tim called an offensive foul on Reggie Miller that was not taken well by the home crowd. The game had to be halted for quite some time, and higher officials later took in the tapes to evaluate Tim’s performance, and ultimately his call was indeed considered to be the right call. From here on, Tim started making a name for himself as a tough referee with sometimes questionable calls.

Away from the court, Tim had a sincere best friend named Tommy Martino since his school days, and Tommy still remains to be his best friend. It was through Tommy that Tim had known and somewhat become friends with Jimmy Battista, who had made a living betting on sports events from a young age. After having initially worked as a waiter in a restaurant, Battista got involved with a group of gambling bookmarkers in Philadelphia called the Animals, and soon started holding bets of millions of dollars on any and every sports event they could get prior information about. Tim himself recalls how he had learned from his early days as an NBA referee that not all things were done according to the rulebook. After being heavily criticized for calling a traveling foul on Michael Jordan, he was apparently told by other officials that even though the NBA wants such fouls to be called, nobody wanted them to be called on a high-profile player like Jordan. It was also the general culture and atmosphere among NBA referees, Tim claims, that was quite different from what the rulebooks stated. The official NBA rules clearly mentioned that match officials could not place bets of any kind during their years working with the NBA. But, a lot of referees actually went out gambling in casinos while traveling for games. Such was the extent of rule-breaking that Tim claims the match officials would place friendly bets among each other as to who would call the first foul, and neither of them would readily do so, letting potential fouls go unpenalized in the games.

Around this time, in 2003, another friend from his school named Jack Concannon introduced Tim to sports betting, and it was Jack who first asked Tim to give him his prediction of NBA teams who would win on that match day. Tim used his inside information, like knowing which match official had a grudge against which team coach, or which team was intentionally losing games to land themselves the first draft pick for the following year, and gave his friend a list of teams that could win. To everyone’s surprise, all these predictions came true, and Jack started betting in a similar manner, i.e., by making use of Tim’s inside knowledge. This quickly grabbed the attention of Jimmy Battista, and he soon realized what was up. He and his group of bookies then started to take Tim’s predictions from Jack and themselves, placing bets on the same teams, which turned out to be hugely successful for them. Years later, after he ended relations with the Animals, Battista directly approached Tim with an interesting proposition. As Battista was already known as someone with ties to the illegal betting business, Tim made a conscious attempt to stay away from the man after starting his job at the NBA, but this time it was once more their common friend Tommy who got them together. At the meeting, as Tim remembers it, Battista told Tim to get involved in a betting scam in which he would bet, and help Battista bet, on games that he himself would be officiating. As Tim recalls, he initially rejected such a proposition, and it was the hardened criminal-minded Battista who threatened to harm his family and directly inform the NBA of Tim’s betting activities if he did not work with the man. As Battista, or even Tommy, remembers it, there was no threat involved at all, and Tim was rather happy to earn large amounts of money from the betting scheme.

It was from here that Tim Donaghy’s worst actions started, as he started to bet on the games he himself was officiating. In total, the teams that he and Battista had bet on won 37 times out of a total of 47 games that they bet on. For every correct pick, Tim made $2000 as per the offer he had been made by Battista, and there was no penalty for getting the pick wrong. Although Tim still claims that he did not get biased while making decisions during the games that he himself was putting his money on, such claims sound ludicrously false. All this betting was still done through Tommy, who had not really signed any agreement as the middle-man between the two parties, but he admits that Tim would always give him some money out of the large stacks that he made when he won the bets. Before every game, Tim would call up Tommy and give him his predictions in coded terms, and Tommy would then relay the message to Jimmy Battista. As is understandable, there was an unnatural number of phone calls that could be traced between the three, and it was this very traceable record that ultimately brought the whole scam down.

How Did The FBI Conduct Their Operation Flagrant Foul?

FBI agent Phil Scala had been head of the FBI team investigating the Gambino crime family in 2006 when he first got to hear of a potential sports-betting scam that was being participated in by certain members of the family. He and his team also first heard of Tim Donaghy’s name in these wiretapped conversations between members of the family. As it turned out, Jimmy Battista had certain ties with the Gambino family in New York, and he was selling the information he was getting from Tim to the members of the family, who were then betting on the predicted teams and earning unlawful money. Going through the extensive call records between Battista and all the men he was working with, the FBI tracked him down along with Tommy Martino. Very soon, they got to Tim Donaghy as well, but he was not yet arrested, and neither was any of this news made public. When Tim appointed his lawyer, John Lauro, for his defense, John quickly made it clear that the only way out of the situation for the referee was to admit to all the crimes and then work with the FBI to uncover the large network of referee scandals that were ongoing in the NBA. Lauro brought in a close friend and an old FBI agent, Warren Flagg, to coach Tim on how he should conduct himself in the FBI’s interrogation, and Tim now acted accordingly.

However, his claims that he did not officiate the games based on which team he had bet on were swiftly crushed by Phil Scala and his team. What they stated was that at numerous points during a game, the NBA referee needs to use their judgment, and with Tim’s judgment already tainted with the knowledge of who he wanted to win, it could never be accepted that the man did not make decisions based on that. They even made Tim sign a document agreeing to this statement, which he readily signed at the time, but now claims that he did not really understand what it meant. But Phil also agreed that during the three years in which Tim carried out all these acts, it was very possible that others in the league also knew about things like this happening. Tim claimed that he believed that this refereeing scam was perhaps even known to commissioner David Stern and his deputy, Adam Silver. The FBI agreed to investigate the matter by coming up with a plan to put wires on Tim Donaghy and let him return to his job. However, what Phil Scala did not take into account was how corruption at the highest level was very much possible, and instead, he met with Commissioner Stern to discuss the matter. David Stern obviously agreed to help out the FBI in every way possible, and even started an investigation on behalf of the NBA itself, by rechecking game footage. However, not only did the NBA conclude that it found no traces of any illegal activities in the referees’ officiating of the games, but the FBI’s whole plan of going undercover with Tim Donaghy was somehow leaked to the press.

Within hours, the matter became public and was extensively covered by all news agencies. Commissioner Stern directly addressed the issue, calling out Tim Donaghy as the only corrupt person among the NBA officials, and also stated that he and his association would help the FBI in their investigation. However, with the matter now public knowledge, no such undercover investigation could be held anymore as there was the risk of every player, every coach, and every fanbase now calling out any official decision against them as part of the scandal, irrespective of whether it was true or not. The NBA stated, and still claims to this day, that Tim Donaghy was the only one responsible for such a scam and that he was only trying to tarnish the image of the NBA and his co-officials in order to get a reduced prison sentence himself. While Tim and Tommy’s defense teams gave up, Jimmy Battista still held on, and he was indeed facing the sternest of charges among the three. Facing charges of illegal gambling, fraud, and wire fraud, Battista prepared himself to take the NBA to court, claiming that he had enough information about the association’s involvement in the scandal.

‘Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul’ Ending Explained – What Was The Aftermath Of The Scandal?

Ultimately, Tim’s defense could not stand, and he was sentenced to fifteen months in prison on charges of illegal gambling and wire fraud. Tommy Martino was sentenced to a year in prison on similar charges. However, Battista’s lawyers soon got a deal from someone in the administration that removed the charges of fraud and wire fraud from his case, and the man only pled guilty to the charge of illegal gambling and was sentenced to fifteen months in prison. While all three have since served their sentences and are now back to their usual lives, Tim’s family fell apart when his wife Kim filed for divorce in 2007, right after his illegal acts became public. There had been doubts as to whether Tim Donaghy had made much more money through the refereeing scam than he had claimed to the authorities, and the ‘Untold’ documentary team now asks him the same question. While Tim blankly replies, “I don’t know,” when he is asked the question for the first time, when he is asked the same question a second time, most probably at the end of filming the entire documentary, Tim says that he most absolutely did not.

The real sense that “Operation Flagrant Foul” makes is that it is almost impossible that Tim Donaghy could have been the only referee to be involved in a scam of this sort. Out of all the NBA match officials who were asked whether they had involvement in gambling of any kind, 52 out of 60 admitted to having a regular gambling habit. Since the scandal, the NBA has revised its rules, allowing referees to place bets but not on sports events. The NBA has also recently embraced sports gambling in an official manner since 2018, allowing bets to be placed on its games. There is also the fact that referees directly and officially earn more money if they could push for an extra game to be played during the playoffs. The NBA itself, through TV rights, would benefit if any playoff tie went to the 7th and most tense game instead of getting wrapped up in just 6 or fewer. The infamous Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Kings also finds its due place in the discussion here. It is undeniable that the NBA benefited when the series was pushed to an extra game, and even more so as the globally popular Lakers with Kobe and Shaq made a comeback to win the series and then the NBA Finals against the weak Nets. Whether the NBA had any direct role to play in it, though, is something still unknown. People like Tim Donaghy and Jimmy Battista, and in fact, many more, would always claim that David Stern and the league itself did it on purpose, while no solid evidence for such claims has been found. Given how popular the NBA is in the US and also globally, perhaps no such evidence can ever be found.

“Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul” is a 2022 Documentary directed by David Terry Fine.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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