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02 Jun 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: A Few Good Gamblers

by Russell Levine

News flash: college athletes gamble. A lot of them. They gamble on games in which they are playing. Some of them have even admitted to altering their performance due to a wager or in return for cash.

In other news, the sun rises in the East and water is wet.

Every few years there is a burst of excitement and outrage over gambling on college athletics, a subject that is otherwise taboo. And there's a good reason why the topic is usually kept under the rug.

I think that if we all knew how often the college games we were watching weren't entirely on the level, we'd probably stop watching altogether. That doesn't mean that teams are throwing games along the lines of the 1919 Black Sox on a weekly basis, but the evil forces of gambling are an unseen presence, lurking in the shadows of college basketball and football. And there's probably nothing that can be done about it.

The nightmare scenario unfolds something like this: Players wager, maybe not on their games or even their sport at first, but they place bets. And like a lot of people that place bets, they soon find themselves in debt. Occasionally, a player will discover to his great surprise that the small-time bookie to whom he owes $1,500 is actually part of a much larger gambling ring. Suddenly, the guy making the weekly collection isn't some frat boy, but a runner from an organized crime syndicate. The player owes money he can't pay -- to people who won't take "no" for an answer. So what does he do? He takes the bookie's suggestion and gets on the payroll. Maybe the player in debt is in position to miss a few free throws or whiff on a key block and help keep his team from covering the spread. If he's not, maybe he can recruit a teammate who can, and will, for the right price.

Would paying college athletes help prevent that scenario? Perhaps in some instances, but just paying the players won't get rid of the problem altogether.

College sports will always be vulnerable to the undue influence of gambling. Bookmaking is rampant on college campuses. The players are young and don't have the wherewithal to recognize the implication of their activity. Furthermore, most of them know they're not going to play professionally and aren't in fear of the possible sanctions that could result if they were to get caught. A professional who bets on his sport knows that he's risking long-term suspension or banishment, but the sixth man on a lower tier Division I basketball team doesn't have nearly so much to lose.

Additionally, because blowouts are frequent in both college basketball and football, the point spreads are much easier to manipulate. The quarterback on a team favored by 28 can probably shave enough points to keep his team from covering the spread without ever putting his team in jeopardy of losing. Many a college athlete has failed to see the harm in that.

Football fans can take some solace in the fact that it's much more difficult to "fix" the outcome of a football game than a basketball game. In basketball, it can be done with a single player. A football game might be able to be fixed with the assistance of just the quarterback, but with 22 players on the field, it's likely that a wider plot would be called for.

Sometimes a "fix" can be far more subtle than throwing a game. Check the point spread of your average college football powerhouse's homecoming game. When Big State plays Podunk U. and is favored by 35, yet is still passing with a huge lead in the fourth quarter, is it just a coincidence? Or did Big State's coach promise the local fat-cat boosters that putting a few thousand on the home side with the local bookie wouldn't be an unwise investment?

(Speaking of Big State, Spike Lee's He Got Game could have been a great sports flick if only he'd chosen a different name for the school at the center of the plot. I mean, "Big State"? I pretty much lost interest right there.)

Time to get back on topic here. Gambling on college sports has again become a big topic in recent weeks, as a report commissioned by the NCAA found that 35 percent of male college athletes bet on college sports. Even more disturbing was the fact that 1.1 percent of football players surveyed admitted to taking money for playing poorly in games and 2.3 percent reported being asked to do so.

In 2001, a bill backed primarily by Arizona Republican John McCain (at least I think he's still a Republican, right?) proposed to outlaw legalized gambling on college sports in Nevada's sports books, on the auspices that it would help to end point-shaving and other gambling scandals that have plagued college athletics in recent years at places like Boston College, Northwestern, Florida State and Arizona State. The bill ultimately died in Congress, which was a good thing.

I have tremendous respect for Senator McCain, but he couldn't have been more wrong on this issue. Nothing could have done more harm to college athletics than the passage of this bill.

Legalized gambling on college sports does more to expose corruption than anything else. Every time a point-shaving scandal has been uncovered in recent years, the casinos have been behind the discovery. The casinos monitor the betting action on games so closely that any large amount wagered on one side or the other of an otherwise unremarkable game immediately sets off alarm bells. This is how a massive basketball point-shaving scandal at Arizona State unraveled a few years ago.

Eliminating the casinos from the mix will only drive the gambling action further underground. With no regulatory body (the casinos) to monitor the movement of the spread, it will be easier than ever to fix games.

Anyone who believes that eliminating legalized gambling on college sports will somehow lessen the overall amount of gambling activity on those games is kidding himself. The only people who would benefit in such a scenario are the bookies.

Other than a few parlay cards, and $5 NFL or NCAA Tournament pools, I don't gamble on sports. I've never placed a bet with a bookie and never had the occasion to place one in a sports book. But the subject interests me. I enjoy studying the point spreads and challenging myself to pick winners, even without any money at stake.

From everything I can tell about the behavior of most sports fans I know, that makes me an anomaly. Far more fans I know can't enjoy a game without some money involved than the opposite.

I didn't always believe that to be the case. I think because I wasn't in a fraternity, I was never exposed to sports gambling while in college at Michigan. I was naïve. I thought sports were played for the enjoyment of fans. I couldn't have been more wrong.

After graduating from college, I went to work for a sports news wire that provided real-time scores and news from college and professional sports all across America. Some of the wire's major customers were the Nevada casinos, who would use the wire as confirmation of the final scores before paying out their bets. If you ever want to see anger personified, send out an incorrect final score on a college basketball game between, say, Jackson State and Florida Atlantic and wait for the phone to ring. In that scenario, there was a 99% chance that the next caller would be an irate representative from one of the casinos demanding your head on a platter. I couldn't imagine that anyone would care that much about Jackson State-FAU, but to the casinos, it's just another game, another opportunity to take action, same as Duke-North Carolina or Kentucky-Louisville.

In my second summer at the wire service, in 1995, I began to notice and odd trend -- if I answered 12 phone calls in the morning, 10 of them were from people looking for Arena Football League scores, of all things. Curious, I asked somebody why all the sudden interest in Arena ball? (This was, after all, much more of a niche league a decade ago than it is today. There was actually a team called the Miami Hooters, after the restaurant chain.)

The answer, I was told, was that the casinos had recently begun accepting bets on Arena Football -- in my mind, a sure sign of the approaching Armageddon.

"Who in their right mind would place a bet on an Arena football game?" I asked a co-worker.

"People will bet on anything," was the response I got.

That's about the time I realized that everything I had thought about sports up to that time -- that it was played for the enjoyment of fans, etc. -- was wrong. I had an epiphany. Sports exist because of gambling. Well, maybe not exist, but certainly they thrive because of gambling.

Evidence to that effect is everywhere. The NFL loves to make a show of the fact that it does not condone gambling, asking its announcers to refrain from invoking the point spreads during telecasts (a request that Al Michaels frequently ignores on Monday Night Football). But the NFL is not stupid. It condones gambling. It evens goes out of its way to provide legitimate information to gamblers, in the form of the NFL injury report.

Each team must file an official injury report with the league on Wednesday and update it on Friday. Failure to report injuries can lead to significant fines. Now ask yourself, why would the league do this? The one and only reason why the injury report is made public, and why its accuracy is enforced by the league, is to protect the legitimacy of the point spreads. You could also make a case that with the explosion of fantasy football, the injury report is also provided to as a service to fantasy players. But in reality, fantasy football is just another form of gambling.

Why does the NFL quietly condone gambling on its games? Because the NFL, better than the other sports leagues in North America, understands that gambling is its Col. Nathan Jessup. Deep down in places he doesn't like to talk about at parties, Paul Tagliabue knows that he wants you, the fan, to play that three-team teaser on Sunday. He needs you to play that three-team teaser. And he's smart enough to know that he sleeps under the very blanket of popularity (and profitability) that gambling provides, so he's not going to question the manner in which it's provided.

That doesn't mean the NFL needs to put a team in Las Vegas and call it the Parlays. It doesn't need to sell advertising to online casinos. It can continue to quietly condone the practice and reap the benefits.

College sports allegedly exist for more a more noble purpose -- to educate the "student athlete." At the highest levels of Division I-A, it's hard to read that sentence with a straight face. There's no need for college conferences or the NCAA to push for formal injury information or to otherwise legitimize the point spread. But they should drop the crusade to stamp out legalized gambling on their games.

Making it illegal in Nevada is not going to stop the practice. It will only make it more corrupt and create the conditions for more headline grabbing point-shaving scandals to occur.

If the NCAA wants to legitimize its product, there are a lot of areas it could concentrate on and do some real good before it came to gambling. Did someone say recruiting? Amid all the hand wringing over the scandal at Colorado, Oregon snatched a prized basketball recruit (from Michigan, I'm compelled to add) after it made the perfectly legal decision to send a private jet to pick him up in Detroit and fly him to Eugene for a brief visit.

Or it could come down hard on the systematic academic cheating that occurs nearly everywhere. Or it could provide a little bit of spending money for its players so one or two of them might be less tempted to take cash from an illicit source.

Gambling isn't going away. It's a beast that can't be slain, and if you could give league executives and conference commissioners truth serum and ask if it even should be, they'd smile and tell you -- much like Jack Nicholson told Tom Cruise -- all that would do is weaken the product.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 02 Jun 2004