Sunday, April 24, 2011

Toreros and Black Sox: Point-Shaving in Southern CA Sparks Reflection on the Recurring (Underreported?) Problem of Fixing Games

On April 11, 2010 a Grand Jury in the Southern District of California handed down an indictment against two former University of San Diego basketball players, a former assistant coach, and seven others, for Conspiracy to Commit Sports Bribery, Conduct an Illegal Gambling Business, and Distribute Marijuana in violation of 18 U.S.C. 371. The indictment does not specify what games were fixed, but it alleges that San Diego players influenced the outcome of multiple games for monetary bribes. One of the players implicated in the scandal is Brandon Johnson, San Diego’s all time leader in points and assists.

While opinions vary on the prevalence of teams “throwing” games, it has undoubtedly been going on for a long time. In fact, new evidence suggests that it may have been more common in baseball during the early twentieth century than once thought. The infamous Black Sox scandal from the 1919 World Series has been well documented, but a recent Associated Press story indicates that their cross-town rival may have done it first. A 1920 deposition of one of the banned White Sox fixers, Eddie Cicotte, stops short of accusing the Cubs of throwing the 1918 World Series against Boston, but strong inferences are made that members of the Cubs were offered $10,000 to throw the World Series and that the White Sox actually got the idea from the Cubs. Historians’ note that players during this time were grossly underpaid and the bribe represented a substantial sum. The motive, coupled with a few suspicious plays during the 1918 Series, suggests that the Cubs’ drought could have been at least a few years shorter than it currently stands. 

While this anecdote offers an interesting insight into the influence of organized crime during that era, it is (presumably) of little consequence, considering the salaries of today’s professional athletes. It would be na├»ve to think gambling does not play a role in professional sports (think recently paroled NBA referee Tim Donaghy), but “fixing” is much less common in the professional realm because the players have too much at stake. The question is, just how common is it at the collegiate level where NCAA amateurism standards strictly prohibit the paying of players. Like the underpaid baseball players of yesteryear, the latent motive exists.

High profile point shaving scandals have marred college basketball for decades. Point shaving at CCNY during the 1950-1951 season proved disastrous for the once prominent program. In 1978-1979, Boston College was embroiled in a scandal that involved infamous gangsters Henry Hill and Jimmy Burke. Prior to the San Diego indictments, the last major point-shaving scandal occurred at Arizona State in the mid 1990’s. So are these merely isolated incidents? A 2008 study on wagering in NCAA athletics suggests probably not. The study revealed that 1.6 percent of men’s basketball student athletes were asked to affect the outcome of a game and 2 percent admitted to betting on their own team.

While this percentage is not insignificant, it is difficult to predict just how pervasive the problem really is. First, the NCAA, burdened by a consistent array of compliance issues, does not have the staff to adequately monitor illegal gambling, and furthermore, the involvement of organized crime often takes investigations out of the NCAA’s hands. Second, games fixing like point-shaving is difficult to prove. It usually involves minimal differences in point spreads and a player’s efforts to impact a game undoubtedly go unnoticed more often than not. Finally, the best players are the ones with the most opportunity to impact games, but also the most at stake. The involvement of Brandon Johnson at San Diego proves that the star players are not immune, but a player with significant professional prospects has less incentive to risk his life and his career.  The San Diego scandal may induce the NCAA to ramp up its enforcement efforts, but this incident will unfortunately not be the last.

See other writing on this Blog related to point shaving from Geoff, Howard, and Greg.  HT to law clerk, Brian Konkel, for his work on this piece.