The question has hung there ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling allowing states to legalize sports betting: Will a higher volume of wagering, done openly under regulation, increase or reduce the risk of corrupt activity such as game-fixing?
A case can be made for either side of the debate, as in:
- More money is being wagered than ever before, so naturally, there will be more temptation and avenues for athletes or those bribing them to profit from influencing the outcome of contests.
- More eyes than ever are monitoring wagers and their possible link to on-field performance, and the legal gaming industry will be hyper-vigilant because it has more to lose from corrupt activity than anyone.
Notorious sports betting scandals from Black Sox to post-PASPA
The sports gambling violation to make the biggest headlines since states outside Nevada began legalizing such betting was not one involving point-shaving or other criminal conduct.
In November 2019, the NFL suspended Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw through the 2020 season for placing a legal football bet in Las Vegas. At the time, he was on injured reserve and not interacting with his team, and the league reported no finding that he was using any inside information.
Still, said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, “If you work in the NFL in any capacity, you may not bet on NFL football.”
But participants in any sport — rules and regulations be damned — are susceptible to the same attraction the general public finds in wagering on a contest. Professional and collegiate athletes, in fact, may feel confident that their own knowledge of sports gives them a decided advantage over the average person in doing so.
The desire of some for high living, particularly in cases where they’re in financial trouble or in college yet to earn income commensurate with their status, can lead to more nefarious gambling-related problems.
Those are among the factors — and you can throw in compulsive gambling issues and plain old greed, as well — that have created U.S. scandals involving the intersection of sports and gambling.
Sports Handle put together the following list of the most notorious game-fixing, point-shaving, racketeering, unsanctioned gambling, and other seedy behavior connected to sports betting that we know of. More such events will undoubtedly, sadly earn their way onto the list in years ahead. We just can’t say whether the growth will be faster or slower as a result of additional state-by-state legalization.
The curse of the Black Sox
The Black Sox scandal has become arguably the best-known example combining sports and gambling for multiple reasons:
- In tainting baseball, it altered the image of far and away the nation’s most popular sport at the time.
- It involved corruption on the sport’s highest stage, the World Series.
- It forever ruined the legacy of star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, blocked from the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his denial of illicit participation and his .356 career batting average that is the third highest all-time.
- The well-received John Sayles film Eight Men Out in 1988 made the scandal part of popular culture, supplementing many books written about it.
The American League-winning Chicago White Sox headed into the World Series of 1919 as heavy favorites over the NL’s Cincinnati Reds, but the odds came down by the time the series started.
That’s because heavy bets on the Reds had been placed with illegal bookmakers in the days before the best-of-nine series started, and rumors were spreading that a fix was in. The rumors proved true.
While many of the details remain murky and debated a century later — including the extent to which players deliberately underperformed — it’s unquestioned that members of the White Sox took money from gamblers on the condition that they lose the series.
A faction of White Sox players harbored hostility over their treatment by owner Charles Comiskey, although the team actually had one of the highest payrolls in the league. First baseman Chuck Gandil led them in a plan to accept thousands of dollars from gamblers tied to organize crime.
Not all of the White Sox were in on the scheme, and they climbed back from a 4-1 series deficit by winning the next two games before succumbing 10-5 in the eighth game. (The players involved also reportedly became angry at failure to receive agreed-upon payments and abandoned the plot, at least temporarily, after the fifth game.)
A grand jury that investigated in 1920 indicted eight players and five gamblers. Jackson was among those charged even though he batted .375 in the series and threw out five runners.
A jury in August 1921 acquitted all eight players of anything criminal, but new baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis nonetheless banned all eight from professional baseball for life based on the confessional statements from a number of them.
One other fallout from the scandal — in lore at least — is what came to be known as the “Curse of the Black Sox.” The club did not win another American League pennant until 1959 and waited until 2005 for its next World Series title.
Charlie Hustle’s baseball bets
Pete Rose’s stature as baseball’s all-time hits leader has made his gambling-related fall from grace a compelling story for decades for both his defenders and critics.
Rose was widely heralded in 24 seasons as a player, but his downfall came as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1989. An MLB investigation found he had been regularly betting on baseball games in violation of league rules for years, including placing wagers on his own team.
Rose agreed to an indefinite ban from the sport in 1989 while maintaining he was not guilty of baseball betting. His denials continued for years until admitting in a 2004 autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, that he was a frequent bettor, though never against his own team.
“I bet on my team to win every night because I loved my team, I believed in my team,” Rose told broadcaster Dan Patrick in 2007.
He applied unsuccessfully for reinstatement from the league ban in 1992, 1998, and 2015. In 2020, in the wake of the Houston Astros cheating scandal and MLB’s growing marriages with legal sportsbooks, he filed a new appeal. He and supporters hope that a reprieve from MLB would enable him to win induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, which bars anyone on MLB’s ineligibility list.
NCAA hoops scandal casts a wide net
No one hears much about City College of New York basketball these days, and there’s a reason for that.
The school was at the heart of college basketball’s biggest scandal ever, at a time when it was coming off a feat never matched before or since: CCNY won both the NCAA and NIT (the bigger prize at the time) tournaments in 1950.
An investigation in 1950-51 of organized crime involvement in paying players to shave points found a total of 33 players at seven schools had participated between 1947 and 1950. The scheme had its genesis in point-shaving first done at summer league games played by collegiate players in the Catskills.
Three stars of CCNY’s national title team were involved, and the case led the school to deemphasize sports, with its basketball program eventually settling at the Division III level.
But the conspiracy also tainted the programs at New York University, Long Island University, Manhattan College, Bradley University, the University of Toledo, and even Adolph Rupp’s University of Kentucky, which was forced by the NCAA to cancel its 1952-53 season.
As in most such cases, the players cooperated with prosecutors and received no prison time for their involvement, while the illegal bookmakers and their gambling associates went to jail.
Foul called on NBA ref
After officiating nearly 800 games over 14 seasons in the NBA, Tim Donaghy’s career came to an end in July 2007 due to gambling-related payments that may or may not have affected the outcome of games.
He pleaded guilty a month after his suspension to federal charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting wagering information through interstate commerce. He was sentenced to 15 months in a prison and halfway house and fined $500,000.
Donaghy was involved in a scheme with two longtime suburban Philadelphia acquaintances who were looking to wager on games he was officiating. He would supply them information, they would place bets based on it, and he would be paid off if the game resulted in their desired outcome.
It was never proven that Donaghy tailored his calls to favor a certain team or point total, but he was found to have himself bet on many of the games he was working.
He has alleged multiple times that other referees are influenced by the NBA to favor certain game outcomes or star players with the intent of maximizing TV ratings and revenue, but no evidence of it has been found and the league has denied it.
David Stern, commissioner at the time, called the Donaghy case “a wakeup call that says you can’t be complacent.” The league subsequently took multiple steps intended to more closely monitor officiating.
Costly Boston College point-shaving
Boston College basketball player Rick Kuhn’s legacy is attached not to what he did on the court, but what happened to him in court.
Unlike most athletes connected to gambling-related sports corruption, Kuhn, a forward on the Golden Eagles’ 1978 team, declined to cooperate with prosecutors. It cost him 28 months of his life, the portion he served of a 12-year prison sentence.
Kuhn was at the center of an arrangement with shady acquaintances from his hometown in suburban Pittsburgh to receive payment for shaving points in games on which they would bet. He enlisted at least one teammate to help.
In an intriguing twist, the Pittsburgh acquaintances had a connection to Henry Hill, the character played by Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, and they enlisted him to help finance the scheme. The conspiracy was exposed by Hill two years after it occurred when he became a federal informant due to connection to far bigger crimes — drug trafficking and the Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport in New York City.
In a still more interesting twist, the scheme became costly for the gamblers, including Hill’s organized crime pal Jimmy Burke. Their first eight games involving bets against Boston College resulted in four wins, two losses and two pushes. They put their largest sum of money yet on a ninth game, Holy Cross vs. the Golden Eagles, and when BC covered the point spread, the angry gamblers abandoned the scheme.
Nearly two decades later, Boston College athletics suffered another stain when 13 members of the 1996 football squad were suspended for betting on sports, including two who bet against their own team in a game vs. Syracuse.
The Golden Boy and Mongo
Paul Hornung and Alex Karras did not fall into the category of corrupt point-shaving, but their status as NFL stars made their gambling-connected suspensions for the entirety of 1963 a major story.
Hornung had been a Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner and first overall draft pick by the Green Bay Packers who was named NFL MVP in 1961.
Karras was established by 1963 as one of the top defensive linemen in the league, a colorful Detroit Lions tackle who would make four Pro Bowls in a 13-year career.
But both of them liked to gamble, including wagers on football games in violation of NFL policy. The bets were no more than hundreds of dollars and were never against their own teams, but Commissioner Pete Rozelle made an example of the two stars by banning them for a full season.
“This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling,” Rozelle said at the time.
Karras, who would receive additional celebrity status years later as an actor who knocked out a horse in Blazing Saddles, supposedly made light of the suspension when a referee asked him to pick heads or tails for a pre-game coin toss in 1964.
“I’m sorry, sir, I’m not permitted to gamble,” he reportedly said.
Waving goodbye to the Green Wave
After Tulane University’s 1984-85 basketball team was embroiled in a gambling-related scandal, it didn’t just get Division III status like CCNY. The school shut the program down for the rest of the decade.
That came after five players were found to have accepted cash and/or cocaine from a group of New Orleans gamblers that wanted them to shave points for multiple games that year.
In the two games, Tulane, a so-so team, lost to Memphis State by 11 as a 6-point underdog and only beat Southern Mississippi by 1 as a 9-point favorite. The conspiracy was discovered due to a suspicious level of betting done by Tulane students in Las Vegas at the time.
The scheme attracted high notoriety in part because of the alleged participation of John “Hot Rod” Williams, who was then the No. 2 all-time scorer for Tulane. He was acquitted of charges, however, and went on to play for 13 years in the NBA.
It wasn’t just the gambling scheme that led to suspension of Green Wave basketball. While head coach Ned Fowler had no knowledge of the point shaving, he admitted that he and assistants had been paying players.
The Northwestern double whammy
Student-athletes at Northwestern University had a rare parlay going in 1994-95: Members of both the football and basketball teams were shaving points, though they weren’t necessarily very good at it.
Two members of the Wildcats’ basketball team admitted to being in cahoots with two gamblers, and all four of them ended up with short prison terms.
These basketball players were different from the typical point-shavers who try to win their games but by a lesser margin than the point spread. Northwestern was a bad team — always an underdog — and players Dewey Williams and Kenneth Dion Lee had agreed to try to lose by more points than the spread.
It backfired when the gamblers involved put heavy action on Michigan as a 25½-point favorite over Northwestern, and the Wildcats came within 17. (The players didn’t get paid off for that one.)
On the 1994 football team, none of the players were alleged to have conspired with bookies or other gamblers. Three starters were charged with perjury, however, for having bet against their own team with a campus bookie and then denying it to a grand jury.
Even though Northwestern had those players supposedly undermining its chances in a contest as a 15-point underdog against Ohio State, the Wildcats nearly pulled off an upset in a 17-15 loss.
ASU point-shaving that went amiss
A lot of people aware of an Arizona State University men’s basketball point-shaving scheme in 1993-94 made a lot of money … until they didn’t.
Star senior guard Stevin Smith, who was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment under a plea bargain, was the key player involved in a plan that evidently grew in bettor awareness over the course of four games.
More and more money poured into Las Vegas sportsbooks against ASU, so much that it not only affected point spreads but raised red flags at casinos and got the attention of regulators and the FBI.
By the time the Sun Devils played Washington on March 5, 1994, a line that started with ASU as a 12-point favorite had been bet down to 3. The sportsbooks were delighted when Arizona State won by 18, costing the illicit gamblers oodles of cash.
In a confessional piece under his byline in 1998, Smith explained how he made the plan work, at least for the first few games: “Yes, I shaved points, but I didn’t do it by throwing wild passes or taking horrible shots or missing free throws. Those are the things everyone looks for. Because I wasn’t that obvious, no one suspected me. … I shaved points playing defense.”
Holy Toledo, another two-sport scandal!
As in the Northwestern case of the 1990s, both the basketball and football programs at the University of Toledo were tarnished by the willingness of their players in 2005-06 to collaborate against their teams.
Two figures tied to the Detroit organized crime world led the scheme and got hefty prison sentences, while seven former football or basketball players pleaded guilty to conspiracy, having accepted money or gifts to alter their play or provide inside information.
In one of the more blatant examples of unsuccessful point-shaving, running back Quinton Broussard admitted that he had received $500 and intentionally fumbled at the goal line in the first half of the 2005 GMAC Bowl.
The fumble didn’t help his betting cohorts. Favored Toledo easily beat the point spread with a dominating second half that resulted in a 45-13 victory.
Art Schlichter’s death spiral
Former Ohio State star quarterback Art Schlichter’s gambling notoriety is a little different, in that he was never accused of conspiring to fix games or do anything wrong on the football field.
He was a longtime compulsive gambler, however, whose out-of-control betting resulted in numerous problems that landed him behind bars repeatedly and garnered far more attention than anything he was able to achieve in football.
Schlichter, currently in prison for a 2011 conviction for bank and wire fraud and other offenses, was an OSU star from 1978-81 who was drafted fourth overall in the NFL.
He was already a compulsive gambler by then, however. He was suspended by the NFL for the 1983 season after revealing his sports betting to the FBI, whose help he sought against bookmakers who had been threatening him over his unpaid debts.
Debts, con schemes, and fake checks connected to his gambling losses would become a sordid running tale for Schlichter, who played just three unsuccessful years in the NFL as one of its most notable draft busts ever. He has been in and out of prison since 1995.