Sports, wagering: for bettor or worse

The Baltimore Sun

Blow the whistle or swallow it. Call 'em close or let 'em play. Charge or block.

No matter what NBA referees do, as a new pro basketball season begins, the suspicions and the jeers will be as inevitable as a LeBron James Nike commercial.

The Tim Donaghy scandal still hangs over the NBA. The disgraced ref, who has admitted to providing information to gambling associates during the two most recent seasons, has yet to be sentenced. And more details about the corruption might come to light as the federal government pursues more prosecutions.

Regardless of what happens with Donaghy, though, this much you can bet on. It will not be the last time there will be ugliness involving betting and big-time sports. And the reason is simple. Sports and gambling have been entwined in a symbiotic, if occasionally destructive, relationship almost as long as the two have existed.

Gambling's corrupting influence on American team sports was most infamously spotlighted in 1919, when some Chicago White Sox players threw the World Series. But until the Black Sox scandal, it was gambling that helped fuel the emerging sport's popularity. Sports and gambling exist in a dangerous dichotomy. Fans certainly don't want their games rigged because of gambling, but, at the same time, they are eager to lay down a few bucks to heighten the competitive experience. In the process, pro sports have become unimaginably profitable.

"Gambling has always had a huge influence on sports," said David G. Schwartz, a gambling historian at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who recently published Roll the Bones, an encyclopedic chronicling of gambling from prehistoric times to the present. "The rise of our first hugely popular team sport, baseball, in the late 19th century was largely due to gambling."

Since then, sports wagering has become big business. The financial figures are impressive, if a bit elusive.

In Nevada, the only jurisdiction in the United States with widespread legal sports wagering, the amount bet on athletic events during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2007, was $2.48 billion. That produced $175.64 million in revenue for casinos. But that's only a fraction of a much broader sports gambling picture.

The real wagering on sports happens either through illegal street bookmakers or, increasingly, over the Internet - although recent federal regulations have stemmed the rising tide of online gambling.

Estimates on illegal sports betting vary. The most quoted figures come from a 1999 report produced by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, a panel of experts who examined all types of gambling. That report estimated that illegal sports wagering ranged from $80 billion to $380 billion. The estimated revenues on those handles would roughly be $3.7 billion to $17.5 billion, or roughly 20 to 100 times the cash generated by Nevada's legal sports books.

More recently, the Internet has increasingly provided a convenient platform for sports gambling and presumably has led to an increase in wagering.

Corrupting factor

Not everyone, though, accepts the notion that the association between gambling and sports is inevitable.

"Any sports should be mutually exclusive from gambling," said John W. Kindt, a professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois who has written widely on gambling. "Whenever you mix any type of gambling with sports, what you have left is not a true sport, because the pressures to fix or influence the event are enormous. Once you've corrupted the sport, you might as well not have it at all, because then it's all about how much money can you get out of it."

The fact of the matter, though, is that there has hardly been a time when athletic competition was so pristine that it was conducted devoid of gambling interests.

In his book on gambling history, Schwartz details how the ancient Greeks bet on events that were the precursors of the Olympic Games when they were first held at Olympus, Delphi and Corinth. But until nearly the 20th century, sports wagering almost always involved animals, races primarily. In a harbinger of the ugly business that suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick financed and supported, animal blood sports, bear and bull bating, were also popular in Elizabethan England.

In early America, sports gambling centered on the two most popular pre-20th century sports, boxing and horse racing. Then, baseball began its ascent as the national pastime on the strength of its betting popularity, and the creation of the point spread led to a gambling infatuation with football.

During the past several decades, gambling fixes have surfaced most prominently in college basketball, but pro sports have avoided a repeat of the 1919 scandal. And Las Vegas' legal bookmakers have contended they remain the most effective early warning system of such problems. Ideally, bookmakers want equal amounts wagered on both sides of a contest so they can earn their commission on the wagers without risk. And if the gaming public were to perceive the games were rigged, betting would likely fall off.

Open policy

"We've always had an open-door policy with all leagues," said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton. "If they needed to look into a questionable game, we've always been ready to help with any investigation, but it's taken a long time to get them to understand that we're on the same side. No one wants a fair game more than the bookmakers, because if there's a crooked game, who are the ones who get hurt? It's the bookmakers."

In the case of Donaghy, unusual patterns were not detected in casino sports books because, according to NBA commissioner David Stern, the wagering was done somewhere other than Las Vegas - either through illegal street bookmakers or over the Internet.

In hindsight, Donaghy's officiating track record has been scrutinized through the prism of gambling. Of particular interest is the over-under line, in which gamblers wager whether the total points scored in a game will be above or below a certain number.

Gambling expert R.J. Bell, who runs the sports betting information Web site, pointed out that when he examined the games Donaghy officiated in the two NBA seasons from 2003 to 2005, the scores went above the over-under just 44 percent of the time. In the most recent two seasons from 2005 to 2007, when it is believed Donaghy was involved in illegal gambling activities, his games went above the over-under line 57 percent of the time. Bell said the likelihood of such a variance is 1,000-1.

'Different' ref

"To me, he was a different referee the last two years," Bell said. The implication of Bell's research is that by calling just a few more fouls, an official can have enormous influence over the outcome of certain types of wagers.

Just last week, Stern said NBA games will be examined using gambling information as a resource.

For their part, professional sports leagues do take preventive measures to educate players and officials about gambling influences, and the leagues monitor the sports gambling environment to assure, as much as possible, that the games are not corrupted.

During a news conference regarding Donaghy held last summer, Stern said his league had a Las Vegas consultant to watch for any unusual betting behavior on NBA games. NFL and Major League Baseball spokesmen said their organizations do the same.

Still, shameful breaches in gambling policies, sometimes even involving criminality, do occur: the Black Sox, Pete Rose, several college basketball scandals, and now Donaghy.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad