Orrin Hatch, your sports are safe.
Last week, the famed conservative senator from Utah penned an absurd op-ed for Sports Illustrated sounding the proverbial alarm over the dangers that legalized sports betting present to the realm of fair competition.
“Unlike those who have downplayed the risks of gambling in athletics, we recognize that unfettered sports betting is not a harmless activity but an existential threat to the games we know and love. At stake here is not just a couple hundred dollars in your office betting pool but the very reputation of sports.”
Hatch and others would lead you to believe that the emergence of legal sports betting will increase the likelihood that point-shaving scandals, broken kneecaps and conflict-of-interest betting will flourish like thieves coming out of their enclaves to converge on a pile of money in the street.
His argument stokes the fears of those who worry that sports betting is a dagger to the vital organs of fair play. Ironically, though, the senator started his piece by highlighting major betting scandals that rocked the country in a time when … wait for it … the illegal gambling market’s revenue far outweighed the legal industries in Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware.
Looking back on history reveals that the American sports world prior to the Supreme Court of the United States’ recent decision was rife with shadiness perpetuated by mobsters and back-alley bookies. Here are few of the major scandals over the past 150 years*:
The 1877 Louisville Grays and the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandals
Both of these teams allegedly took payments from illegal gambling bosses in exchange for losing games. Until the Black Sox, the Grays were the notorious franchise, having endured a scandal in which four players took money to lose games. Those four players received lifetime bans.
More than 40 years later, the infamous “Black Sox” scandal emerged, in which eight players were accused of tanking the World Series in exchange for payments. While none of the eight were ever convicted in a court of law, all of them were banned from the game for life, a very Roger-Goodell move long before Goodell endured draft-night boos.
Contextually speaking, this type of wholesale scandal may never occur again because of two factors: the White Sox owner underpaid his players and the league prohibited players from moving to other teams if they refused to sign a contract with their current team.
Disgruntled, underpaid players who were chained to a team they hated had an opportunity to make what is assumed to be a large chunk of money and they took it.
While it’s hard to understand exactly how much the going rate would be for throwing a World Series in a post-PASPA, today’s MLB players would be hard-pressed to take money on the side when their contracts are already substantial.
1961 and 1978-79 NCAA men’s basketball scandals
One could argue that the NCAA is the most vulnerable to altered results simply because the players are not paid and we live in a time when cries for player compensation are as loud as they’ve ever been.
College basketball teams have fallen prey to a pair of bookie-backed game-throwing. In 1961, it was discovered that 22 different colleges were involved in game-fixing. Seventeen years later, the infamous Boston College scandal broke.
It was revealed that underworld ruffians with mob connections convinced members of the Boston College men’s basketball team to fix games so the Golden Eagles wouldn’t cover the spread. The infamous scandal became the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 episode titled, “Playing for the Mob.”
2005-2008 Tim Donaghy NBA scandal
Donaghy’s dealings with an old high school friend and said friend’s boss turned out to be the worst game-fixing scandal in NBA history.
Basically, Donaghy passed inside information along to bookies and was paid $2,000 when the right team won.
After the scandal broke, research was done on the games in which Donaghy refereed and there were marked differences in the winning team’s scoring, as well as several instances in which a big jump in the betting line happened just before the game.
Donaghy spent 13 months in jail for his indiscretions and has been quite vocal since his sentencing. He provided this prophetic quote about the legalization of sports betting to the U.S. version of The Guardian in May 2015:
“I think if they do that it’s going to be watched more closely. I think that they’re going to have a better grip on it, and people are going to concentrate more on what’s going on on the floor to make sure things aren’t happening. And it’s something where the NBA needs to take advantage of this extra revenue that can be generated because behind the scenes gambling is a billion dollar a year business. So, in order to get money for extra contracts or for extra revenue, they’re going to take advantage of it.”
The bottom line: legalized, regulated gambling more likely to reduce game-fixing
If that sounds like a common-sense statement, that’s because it is. Legal sportsbooks will most likely refrain from hiring low-level henchmen to badger referees and players to throw games.
At this point, players in the major professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) earn enough money to where the cost-benefit ratio throwing a game will dissuade them from engaging in match-fixing.
The weak point may be the referees, whose salaries are far less than the players. And considering that NBA ref salaries start out at around $150,000, low-level earners would be, in theory, the most susceptible to game-fixing.
Spread that $150K salary out over 82 games and you’re looking at less than $2,000 a game. Donaghy’s $2,000 payoff, when adjusted for inflation, is around $2,400 in today’s game. An extra $2,400 a game for a rookie NBA referee is an attractive (non-taxed) proposition.