Let Pro Athletes Gamble: 21st Century Sports Reality

WNBA’s Connecticut Sun v. New York Liberty
WNBA’s Connecticut Sun v. New York Liberty: One’s home arena is at Mohegan Sun Casino, the other’s jersey pimps competing Foxwoods / NY Daily News
As a former sportswriter turned crime fiction author, I’ve long been attuned to the broad intersection between our games and our legal improprieties.

Some of my earliest visits to courtrooms and police precincts came as I chased stories involving one malfeasant athlete or another. There were times in my newspaper career when I thought they should merge the sports section with the police report, strictly as a matter of efficiency.

But there’s always been one aspect of crime and sports that never made much sense to me:

The hysteria surrounding pro sports and gambling.

Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago Black Sox scandal
Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Chicago Black Sox scandal: So poorly compensated that baseball players shared uniform jodhpurs with polo teams.
Seriously. The last known fix of a professional baseball game involved the infamous White Sox—aka the Black Sox—and it occurred in 1919, a year after the end of the first World War and a year before women got the right to vote.

The NFL hasn’t had a fixing scandal since 1946, when the immortal—or perhaps not so immortal—Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were questioned shortly before the champion game.

The NBA’s last alleged fixer was Jack Molinas, who was banned from the league in 1954 for betting on games involving his own team, the Fort Wayne Pistons.

What do these have in common? They’re at least half a century in our rearview mirror, they involve athletes who are now long dead, and they took place at a time when the average professional athlete wasn’t paid much better than the average plumber.

Jack Molinas of the Fort Wayne Pistons
Jack Molinas of the Fort Wayne Pistons: Old-school hi-tops meet point-shaving in low-res black-and-white
The economics of sports have changed dramatically since that time, to the point where it doesn’t make a shred of sense for a pro jock to be tempted by the penny-ante bribes of a game-fixer. The minimum salaries in all the major professional sports leagues are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The average salaries are in the millions of dollars.

Not even the mob can compete with those kind of wages.

And yet, every few years, there seems to be another hullabaloo about athletes and their betting habits. Lots of people got in a snit over Michael Jordan’s gambling, as if he didn’t have plenty of dough to blow on an innocent half million dollar wager or two. Wayne Gretzky’s otherwise unsullied reputation got a tarnishing a few years back when he was indirectly implicated – though never formally charged – in a gambling ring involving one of his assistant coaches. And, of course, it’s well known that if Pete Rose had “merely” beat his wife, snorted cocaine or kicked homeless people for fun, he’d be in the Hall of Fame by now.

Instead, Rose bet on baseball, the most mortal of all the sporting sins. And because of it, he has been banned from baseball for the last 22 years, which is almost as long as he played it.

Card-playing champion Chicago Bulls on the team plane, including NBA Hall of Fame gazillionaires Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan
Card-playing champion Chicago Bulls on the team plane, including NBA Hall of Fame gazillionaires Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan
Woe to the pro athlete who is even considered to be in the company of gamblers. All of the major professional sports leagues have handsomely paid security staffs, chock full of former high-level law enforcement officials, who monitor their players’ activities in this area. Every league has, as part of its rookie orientation, stern warnings about the evils of associating with gamblers.

It is a paranoia layered with both absurdity and hypocrisy.

Because, on the one hand, the leagues are saying, sternly, don’t bet on anything. On the other hand, a variety of pro teams and leagues make money licensing themselves to state and regional lotteries (a form of gambling). Major League Baseball and the NBA (if it ever plays another game) have both eyed placing franchises in Las Vegas, the nation’s wagering capital and also its last large untapped pro sports market. For that matter, the WNBA has had a team, the Connecticut Sun, playing in the Mohegan Sun casino since 2003.

Now, granted, college sports are a different ballgame. The kids playing them are often dirt poor and, more to the point, they’re kids: by definition, prone to stupidity. And every few years or so, the NCAA weathers a point-shaving scandal, particularly in college basketball, where as one of five players on the floor, a single athlete can make a sizable difference in a game’s outcome.

But when it comes to pro sports and betting? It’s time to get real.

Instead, what we get is the spectacle like what happened in New Jersey a few years back, where a state assemblyman was pushing for legalized sports betting in Atlantic City. A lawyer for the NFL testified before the assembly about the “serious problems for team sports” that arise from gambling. He cited, as an example, the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

The last surviving member of the Black Sox, Swede Risburg, died in 1975. The paranoia his infamous team helped create should have been allowed to die with him.

Images via BleacherReaport, findagrave, NY Daily News, and woosk.


Brad Parks’s debut, Faces of the Gone, introduced the world to investigative reporter Carter Ross and became the first book ever to win the Nero Award and Shamus Award. His third Carter Ross book, The Girl Next Door, releases this March. For more, sign up for Brad’s newsletter, follow him on Twitter @brad_parks, or go to Brad Parks Books on Facebook.

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