Sports Essay: The Pervasiveness of Sports Gambling

Analysis by Matthew Schwerha
The Red Line Project
@RedLineProject
Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011

Billions of dollars are bet on sports around the world every year. From the World Cup to small-scale college athletics, the action that is sought by gamblers can be found anywhere, at any time of the day.

 The amount of sports fans around the world would surely shrink if some “fans” were unable to lay wagers on a wide-array of games.

 Jeff Beck, a former compulsive sports gambler turned Clinical Coordinator at the Compulsive Gambling Center of New Jersey said, “When I stopped gambling on football, I stopped watching it. I never missed a Monday Night Football game while I was gambling. For the last 15 years, I have watched in-full no more than 10 games, and they were all when the Giants were playing. “

 The Giants, long housed in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, are the hometown team of Beck.

“You think you are a sports fan, but without the money interest you don’t have the same passion,” he said.

According to the American Gambling Association, they reported in 2010, that the Gross Gambling Revenue (GGR) was $34.6 billion.  GGR is the amount wagered minus the winnings returned to players, taking into account the revenue earned by casinos, racetracks, and lotteries around the country.

Taking into consideration that casinos make $34.6 billion, the total amount of money wagered over the course of a year is astronomical.

The billions of dollars legally generated across the country do not take into consideration the amount of money that is gambled around the globe in the underground world of bookies and off the grid bets.

Beck was a man going places when he first picked up his gambling habit.

In 1977, he was in law school on the East Coast and began laying bets on horses at the racetrack.

Eventually, he decided to include his favorite sport in the action: football.

“I chose football because it was a three day a week activity. Noon to midnight on Sundays I was glued to my television set.”

Beck recalled, “I started out betting two pro games a week. By the tenth week I was betting every single game, and by the thirteenth week I had three bookies in order to hide how much I was betting.”

The problem with sports gambling is that sometimes it does not stay completely separated from the “real” sports world.

Some of the most notorious gamblers are athletes. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley have been known to wager well over six figures on a single bet or single trip to the casino.

Even when losing, just the action is satisfactory to the desires of some athletes gambling.

The buzz and adrenaline that someone who is consumed by gambling feels is something that has no monetary value and is obviously chased by gamblers time and time again.

Floyd Mayweather tweets to his thousands of Twitter followers about long-shot bets that he pulled off in order to win large amounts of money, showing the genius he must have to win such obscure and impossible wagers.

Justin Wolfers, an associate professor of Business and Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania-Wharton conducted a study titled, “Point Shaving: Corruption in NCAA Basketball” and in his article he said, “The incentive for corruption derives directly from the asymmetric incentives of players, who care about winning the game, and gamblers, who care about whether a team beats (or covers) the spread.”

In a world where insider knowledge is coveted, it is no surprise that athletes and the games they play are dragged into direct connection with gamblers and its dirty underworld.

Gambling in sports is not a new practice, famously dating all the way back to the 1919 World Series when the “Chicago Black Sox” threw their series against the Cincinnati Reds.

More recently, two former University of San Diego basketball players and a former assistant coach were indicted on allegations of point-shaving, enabling them to make large amounts of money while affecting the outcomes of their team’s games.

There is no sport that is more susceptible to illegal gambling activity than basketball.

Football has point spreads too, but it is much more difficult for players to win the game and still satisfy the gamblers they are working with because most games are settled by a touchdown or two.

Point spreads are shown as common knowledge on legal betting sites, and are even embraced by stations such as ESPN, as they present the lines with one of its more recognizable “reporters,” Hank Goldberg.

Goldberg tells viewers what the spread is, and who he thinks has the best chance to not win the game, but cover the spread in that particular week.

MGM Grand Sports Book Photo

Although professional sports earn the most money in the legal world of sports gambling, it is college athletics that have the biggest risk of becoming tainted.

Wolfers said, “There need not be any shadowy gamblers offering bribes, as the players can presumably place bets themselves, rendering a coconspirator unnecessary added expense.”

College athletes are practically living in poverty, while their professional counterparts that some of them are poised to join in a year or two, live the life of luxury with fast cars and large mansions.

By involving as few people as possible, players would be able to make even more money, but also keep the workings of their system in as tight-knit of a circle as possible.

This assertion by Wolfers has to be frightening to a school such as the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, which is directly in the middle of the gambling capitol of the world.

Ross Runfola, a sociologist at the University of Buffalo said, “Many collegiate athletes have athletic skills that are highly developed but come from disadvantaged economic environments.”

“[Athletes] are particularly susceptible to shaving points given the fact they are earning great sums of money for their schools, but are under great hardship because their only economic benefit is a scholarship,” said Runfola.

In an official statement released by the NCAA, its President Mark Emmert said, “Point shaving is a clear threat to student-athletes well-being and the integrity of the game.”

The release furthered the NCAA’s stance, “Student-athletes who engage in point-shaving activities are breaking the law and jeopardizing their eligibility. Those involved in organized gambling view student-athletes, especially those in financial trouble, as easy marks for obtaining inside information or affecting the outcome of the game.”

Few student-athletes have a large amount of insider knowledge that would be worth large sums of money from gamblers, but the majority of them have financial hardships that are exactly what an organized gambler is looking for.

The fact the NCAA addressed the financial troubles of their student-athletes so early in its release shows just how big a problem students not receiving any form of compensation is in college athletics.

Stories such as the Ohio State investigation and the controversy surrounding former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, unlinked to gambling, further enhance the notion that student-athletes are in a very vulnerable position.

I. Nelson Rose, a senior professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., said via email, “I think the main targets are college athletes, because professional, especially football players, make too much money for organized crime to be able to compete.”

The risk of going to jail and potentially being able to lose the things most of these athletes love most in life, is just too much for professional athletes.  However, for a young man who is struggling to make ends meet, it is well worth the gamble. 

The Madness of March
How lucrative is the college basketball business?

David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas said on his blog, “March might be mad, but it’s also pretty lucrative for Las Vegas sports books. Most of the big casinos make betting on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament the centerpiece of a gambling vacation for the guys (and about 95 percent of them are guys – there’s still a heavy masculine slant to the party).”

Gambling is so important in the NCAA tournament, that hordes of men actually pay large amounts of money to go somewhere other than where the games are being played, in order to then bet more of their own money on the games being played.

Schwartz continued, “The first extended weekend [of the NCAA tournament], in which 48 games are played over four days, is the busiest for most Nevada sports books. But Final Four weekend’s no slouch, either.”

While college football is equally as popular, nothing can really match the madness college basketball brings to the table in March. With games on the first Thursday and Friday happening all day, gamblers swarm to Las Vegas in order to have access to lay bets on a wide variety of things.

Along with traveling great length to gamble, people want to be able to wager on things anytime and anywhere.

John W. Kindt, a professor at the University of Illinois and a senior editor of the United States International Gambling Report, said in the online version of the University of Illinois’ News Bureau, in reference to smartphones and mobile technology, “It’s the crack cocaine of gambling, putting it in every living room, on every school desk and work desk, and on every iPhone and Blackberry.” 

The 'Fix' is on
The money that changes hands on bets on games across the world is a large sum, but most of the time it is assumed that the people wagering have no connection with the games or world in which they are betting on.

Most recently, two college basketball players were uncovered to be betting on games in which they played; and their performances in the games and factors leading up to the game lead prosecutors to be able to uncover a decent sized gambling ring.

According to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the indictment charges ten people with conspiracy to fix college basketball games over the 2009 and 2010 season. Two of the ten defendants were college basketball players.

The two players were Brandon Johnson, a starting guard for the University of San Diego, and Brandon Dowdy, a starting guard for the University of California-Riverside.

While the specific games that were bet on have not been revealed, there are many factors that have let media members and specialists to speculate on which games may have been “fixed”.

When the two players met one another in a 2009 game, the only thing they were sharing was not their first name.

Johnson and Dowdy were involved in a gambling ring that the Union-Tribune reports moved the point spread of a game between USD and UCR nearly four points over the course of the day of the game, something that is rather unusual in the college basketball world.

The game under review featured Riverside coming back from a nineteen point deficit, and a meltdown by Johnson that was quite unusual for a fifth year senior.

Jack Cronin, who called the game for XX Sports Radio, told the Union-Tribune, “That’s the first game that came to mind when I heard about all this. I went back and listened to the tape.”

Usually, when point shaving comes to question, there is a singular team that is in mind. However, if Johnson, Dowdy, and their coconspirators did work to fix the February 2009 game, it could be especially concerning for the future of gambling amongst players in college basketball and college athletics.

What took place with the players from the University of San Diego and the University of California-Riverside, and the people they were connected to in the underground gambling community is very concerning to the NCAA because their actions are not only rules violations, but their wrongdoings are also illegal under United States of America law.

The Power of the Sweater Vest
A Sports Illustrated investigation, conducted by writers George Dohrmann and David Epstein, revealed that the situation at The Ohio State University was much more rampant than the original six players who were suspended, along with Head Coach Jim Tressel, for the first five games of the season.

Tressel, who lied to investigators about his knowledge of players committing violations, resigned from his position, and was a main target in the investigation.

SI OSU Cover Photo

A man who was said to have a “choirboy” image, the SI investigation uncovered that Tressel had known about many more violations at OSU, and had left Youngstown State with sanctions when he departed the school for OSU.

Leslie Cochran, president of Youngstown state since 1992, told SI people who are closest to Tressel understand that the coach does not always abide by the rules.

Cochran told SI, “There was the Christian who lifted kids out of troubled neighborhoods and built a football “family”, and there was the coach who claimed to have been kept in the dark after he had assiduously avoided the light. What bothered me was that the family knows. Inside the family everyone knows what’s going on.”

Tressel’s violations are allegedly not a new thing either.

As an OSU assistant in the mid-1980’s, Tressel was charged with running the Buckeyes’ summer football camp. One former colleague told SI that Tressel would rig the raffle at the camp so the Buckeyes’ top prospects, who were just a few of the camp’s attendees, would go home winners.

In the SI investigation, the former Tressel colleague alleged, “In the morning [Tressel] would read the Bible with another coach. Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That’s Jim Tressel.”

Many times the NCAA has suspended player for committing violations, but it is a rarity that such a bona fide coach has been brought down so quickly and in such brutal fashion.

The investigation alleges that since 2002, 28 OSU players have traded or sold memorabilia.

Robert Rose, a former Buckeyes defensive end, told SI that he had no regrets in his actions that could bring sanctions upon his alma mater.

 Rose said, “I knew how much money that the school was making. I always heard about how Ohio State had the biggest Nike budget. I was struggling, my mom was struggling.”

Rose continued, “It was just something that I had to do. I was in a hard spot. [Other] guys were doing it for the same reasons. The university doesn’t really help. Technically we knew it was wrong, but a lot of those guys are from the inner city and we didn’t have much, and we had to go on the best we could. I couldn’t call home to ask my mom to help me out.” 

Fixing the NCAA
The notion that student-athletes throughout the NCAA would benefit from being paid for daily necessities is nothing new, but some people are certain that athletes getting paid small amounts of money would not stop them from violating NCAA rules.

John Infante, a contributor to “The Blog of the NCAA”, writes on NCAA.org that the fame that some student-athletes have attained through collegiate athletics makes them seek much larger items than just some extra spending money.

On NCAA.org, Infante wrote, “Payment would not be small monthly stipends. The idea that pocket money solves all the problems is disproven by [2010’s] agent cases. $1,000 watches, trips to South Beach, and expensive personal training on the other side of the country are all things elite student-athletes want. They’re also all things that cannot be funded on a couple of hundred dollars a month.”

The NBA and NFL comprise former student-athletes who are living the luxurious life, and are not scared to show the benefits of their day jobs. It also should be noted, these are the players that college athletes aspire to be like, and have a hard time understanding they are not on the same level as them, despite their ability to make their respective universities millions upon millions of dollars.

Infante went on to say that the only way student-athletes could get paid, is if men’s football or basketball broke away from the NCAA, an option that is unlikely with the amount of money they both generate over the course of their seasons.

Still, the most damaging thing to the NCAA is when one of its own is involved in wrongdoings that involve the underground gambling world.

Gambling Addiction
Rehab International is an organization that studies the behaviors of people with drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions, and then tries to come up with the best ways in which to help those affected overcome their issues.

On its website, it defines gambling addiction as, “A form of addiction including the condition known as compulsive or pathological gambling. Compulsive gambling increases the addicts’ preoccupation with gambling and creates an uncontrollable urge to engage in gambling despite the negative effects it might have in their lives. Addicts continue to chase bets in spite of continuous loss, lie, cheat or even steal to support the habit of gambling.

The common person may not consider gambling addiction as a disease, but the way in which people with this disease are treated proves that it must be treated like it is.  Taking gambling addiction as seriously as drug and alcohol addiction makes one hope that eventually this problem is one that can be brought under control.

According to statistics on Rehab International’s website, 148 million Americans fall under a low risk gambler category. 15 million adults are under the risk of becoming problem gamblers. 3 million adults are considered problem gamblers, while 2.5 million adults are considered to be compulsive gamblers.

Jeff Beck is just one example of what can happen to someone when they get involved in gambling and its strong undertow.

Beck had no connection to athletes or bookies with insider knowledge, actions that are the scariest to the NCAA, but his involvement with underground gambling proves it is a lucrative business that must be concerning to the NCAA about the possibility of some of their athletes getting involved in a lifestyle that could drastically help them in the short term.

Sports are a medium that sometimes seem predetermined because of the skill level of its players, and the odd happenings over the course of many games.

But to see just how pervasive gambling is, Beck said we must look at what people wager on outside of sports.

“You can find odds on the Royal Wedding or Dancing with the Stars. There is so much focus on keeping it out of sports because of the thought that it is on the up-and-up,” said Beck.

Gambling is an addicting habit, and throughout its sphere there are people from all walks of life that participate in it. Gamblers range from millionaires to people struggling to make ends meet, but the potential of prosperity and the rush of the experience keep them coming back for more.

Beck shared a quote from Jimmy the Greek, the famed television personality, with me that summed up the mantra of a gambler.

“The best thing in life is having action and winning. The second best is having action and losing.”

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