UNTOLD: OPERATION FLAGRANT FOUL (REVIEW)
Untold: Operation Flagrant Foul is a 2022 documentary now available on Netflix. The expose clocks in at 1 hour and 45 minutes, but runs out of steam in about half that time.
Regretfully, there’s not much new about the shocking NBA referee corruption scandal during the mid-2000s that flagrantly violated basketball’s integrity which many of us didn’t already know. However, the documentary’s far worse sin is one of glaring omission — teasing the audience with serious but unsubstantiated allegations that the refereeing scandal was actually far bigger and extended all the way to the top, which was squashed by the all-too-powerful NBA. Here’s where the dirty gold likely is buried. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern’s office certainly deserved a hard door knock and a search warrant. The cover-up (and possible new discoveries) should have been the basis of a far more compelling investigation and doc, instead of now retreading 15-year-old newspaper headlines. hence, Untold doesn’t really tell us anything. It fails to do any new digging.
This is a story with no good guys and lots of scumbags. Imagine the endless possibilities and the possible profits to be made gambling when a referee is officiating a basketball game and has his own money riding on the outcome. His whistle might as well be a weapon. NBA referee Tim Donaghy became the reckless “Top Gun” in this haphazardly-organized gambling syndicate based in his hometown of Philadelphia. In hundreds of NBA games played over a three-year span, Donaghy blew his whistle more often on players with teams he was betting against. And he let the players with teams he was betting on slide when they committed fouls. Donaghy, an experienced league official, artfully concealed his bias and corruption until gradually over time, some players and coaches began to get suspicious.
“He fixed them like a motherfucker. He was the greatest. That’s the only positive thing I could say about him–nobody could control a whistle like Timmy D,” said James Battista who rode shotgun in the front seat of the game-fixing clown car connection to Philadelphia’s notorious gambling underworld. What a waste. Had the group of fixers been just a little wiser and less greedy, this capper could have continued indefinitely. Who knows, they might never have been caught and could be riding the gravy train for corruption to this day.
Instead, like most conspiracies that unravel, the blabbermouth criminals couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Prone to ridiculous exaggeration, Battista even makes the absurd claim that “millions” of dollars were riding on the outcomes of Donaghy-officiated games. Millions? Umm, no. There’s no way a regular-season NBA game could generate such heavy one-sided action without raising huge red flags. Unfortuantely, no one in the documentary apparently knows enough about how sports gambling works nor challenges Battista on his preposterous assertions about betting “millions” of dollars on individual basketball games. This is very problematic. If we can’t trust the subjects to level with us on the details of their crimes, how can we trust them on anything else they say?
Another Donaghy associate is just as comically untrustworthy. “A lot of money was exchanged, and we had fun, and we got caught”, a two-but slug with the IQ of a hammer named Tommy Martino reflects on camera, while laughing. Not an ounce of remorse is given. Apparently, it was a prank.
Donaghy confessed on camera that he was making about $400,000 a year legitimately as an NBA official before getting caught in the scandal. But even a hefty salary, a free-wheeling lifestyle, and a dream job weren’t enough. He wanted more. Incredibly, his take was only between $2,000-$4,000 per game he tried to fix, which amounts to pigeon shit in the grand scheme of profit and given the immense risk involved. Investigators later determined that Donaghy-backed teams won about 74 percent of the time, which as any gambler knows is a stellar winning percentage.
Fortunately, there’s a happy ending. We already know the final outcome. The trio of fixers — Donaghy, Martino, and Battista — get caught. They were charged, tried, and imprisoned, though for relatively paltry sentences ranging from only 10 to 18 months. Of course, disgraced Donaghy ended up paying a much higher price, losing his reputation, costing his marriage, and ending up as a pariah. He’ll never officiate anywhere near an NBA arena again, other than a seedy wrestling ring which is where Donaghy now scratches out a meager living as a referee. For a short time, he even tried to tout his NBA picks with a slimy handicapping service before floundering and ultimately failing. Donaghy realized it’s tougher to predict the outcomes of basketball games when he’s not equipped with a whistle. Later, he tried to claim he was a “compulsive gambler” and even attended GA meetings. Donaghy — always playing the victim.
After watching Untold, I felt I needed a shower. There was nothing redeeming about the “confessions” nor anything else new uncovered in by the documentary in terms of investigative journalism. It wasn’t even entertaining. That’s too bad because criminals often make compelling stories. Con men can even be fun to watch. But these fixers are a bore.
This is the latest in an Untold television series that’s usually much better than this. The same documentarians produced the outstanding Malice at the Palace, a look back at the violent melee that took place in Detroit between players and fans at a 2004 NBA game between the Pistons and Pacers (an incredible coincidence–Donaghy was one of the referees in that game). The Untold series also includes The Girlfriend That Didn’t Exist, a voyeuristic tabloid-flavored look at a puritanical Notre Dame college football player who was catfished by a fake “dead girlfriend” in a mass hoax that blew up in everyone’s faces ten years ago.
Untold is certainly a television series worth watching. But Operation Flagrant Foul is missed shot and a violation because it fails to tell us anything new. Once a dirty scumbag, always a dirty scumbag.
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