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Original Issue


Betting on football, basketball and baseball has become a huge nationwide business. Massive television exposure and the look-the-other-way attitude of league and club executives have helped propagate sports gambling's vast popularity. Most Americans tend to view such wagering as a naughty-but-nice diversion. Yet, from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 to the Tulane basketball fixes of last season, nothing has done more to despoil the games Americans play and watch than widespread gambling on them. As fans cheer their bets rather than their favorite teams, dark clouds of cynicism and suspicion hang over games, and the possibility of fixes is always in the air. This 32-page report on sports gambling examines several facets of the phenomenon. The first section deals with the scope and dangers of sports gambling. Other stories cover the surprising way the point spread is set in Vegas, the agonies of members of Gamblers Anonymous, the plight of the NFL quarterback trapped by his compulsion and the emotional confrontation between a former college basketball player who fixed games and an innocent teammate whom he had not seen in 25 years.

"We play hard, and we cover. We lead the league in covering the point spread."
—HUBIE BROWN, coach of the last-place New York Knicks

Sports gambling in America is this big: No one knows how big it is.

All one can say for sure is that this kind of gambling—wagering on the spectator sports of football, basketball or baseball, as opposed to pari-mutuel betting on racing or jai alai—has taken a grip on American life that is more powerful and more pervasive than ever before. It has, by every reliable indication, become a gigantic industry.

What is particularly noteworthy about this is that while other forms of gambling have become more widely legalized in the U.S., sports gambling has continued to be illegal everywhere, except for the singularly eccentric state of Nevada. For the record: Betting on horse races, dog races or jai alai is, in one form or another, legal in 36 states today, four more than allowed it 10 years ago. By contrast, sports bookmaking is a criminal act in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Under federal law, it is punishable by a maximum fine of $20,000 and/or five years in prison. Nevertheless, sports gambling gets bigger every day.

Whereas horse racing once was the chief source of financial nourishment for bookmakers, now the big play comes from professional and college team sports. One Chicago bookie, who estimated his annual handle at $1 million, told SI, "It used to be that 85 percent of my customers made bets on horses. Now it's just the opposite—90 percent of their bets are on [team] sports, with football way ahead, then basketball and baseball." Why the shift? "Television," says the bookie. "Television has done wonderful things for gambling in America." Indeed, it is generally agreed that TV exposure over the past two decades has been the single biggest reason gambling on pro and college football has soared. And it is no accident, the experts say, that with college basketball games now proliferating on the tube, there has been an upsurge in wagering on that sport.

The total dollar volume of betting on team sports today can only be guessed at. A decade ago the Justice Department estimated that illegal sports gambling was a $20-to-$25-billion-a-year business. Since then the department has pulled back on prosecuting many sports-gambling cases because of the difficulty of getting convictions and stiff sentences, and it still sticks pretty much to that figure. However, Francis Mullen, a corporate security executive who was in charge of the FBI's organized-crime investigations in 1980 and 1981 and later headed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, estimated the figure at $70 billion in 1984. Even that number may be conservative. In 1981 the National Football League made its own estimate that pro football alone was attracting $50 billion a season.

According to the President's Commission on Organized Crime, illegal sports gambling is second only to drugs as a source of income for crime syndicates. But James Bittman, Chicago district chief of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service, believes that gambling is the largest source and says that the Mob grosses $40 billion a year from it. Bittman says bookmakers in the Chicago area alone handle about $2 billion in bets annually. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to district attorney Henry Wade, $10 million or more is bet on college and pro games on a single football weekend. Even a cautious observer like Eugene Martin Christiansen, coauthor of a 1985 book on gambling, The Business of Risk, who accuses the law enforcement establishment and the media of inflating such figures for their own purposes, estimates that nearly $30 billion a year is wagered illegally in the U.S. Christiansen figures the profit on such activity to be $5 billion, roughly equivalent to what the nation's largest company, Exxon Corp., earned last year.

Vic Salerno, an ex-dentist turned professional bookmaker and the president of the Nevada Association of Race and Sports Book Operators, closely monitors sports gambling countrywide, legal and illegal. He is happy to note that legal sports wagering in his state has enjoyed a staggering growth. In 1974 there were only nine legal sports-gambling books in Nevada, handling just over $4.6 million a year. Ten years later, in fiscal 1984, there were 62 legal books that handled $808 million. In fiscal 1986, says Salerno, the Nevada handle will exceed $1 billion. "And there aren't even a million people in Nevada," Salerno says. "We're such a tiny part of the whole thing. Figure it out! What do you think they're doing in Philly, L.A., San Francisco? Extrapolate it out! The government says they think it's $40, $50 billion nationally. That's completely ridiculous! I know of a small rural town of 13,000 in Wisconsin, and that town alone has three illegal bookmakers. Three!"

The conclusion has to be that no one really knows exactly how much sports gambling is going on. "Whatever it is," says Emmett Michaels, who investigated unlawful gambling for the FBI for 17 years until he went into private business last June, "it's an epidemic."

Here are some of the ways you can use to measure this epidemic as it has come to affect sports in 1986:

•Sports gambling in America is so big that shills for the gambling industry have come to star on network TV. Pete Axthelm gives point-spread picks on NBC's pregame NFL show. Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, who was convicted in 1963 of transporting gambling information across state lines and was pardoned by President Ford in 1974, offers his picks on CBS's pregame show. Snyder himself is impressed by his change of fortune. "I always tried to hide," he recently told SI's Robert H. Boyle. "I always ran away from you guys. Then I went public, on the square." Snyder has become so respectable that when Secretary of State George Shultz was asked at a press conference before the Geneva summit last fall about the prospects for fruitful arms-control negotiations between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he actually began speculating on what the odds would have been "if Jimmy the Greek was here." Shultz said that the Greek might have fixed "the probability" of success at "something between point-two and point-four." When a reporter expressed bafflement, Shultz, speaking a handicapping language all his own, said he meant that the probability was between two and four out of 10.

•Sports gambling is so big that many coaches complain that the volume of their hate mail rises and falls not on whether they win or lose but on whether they beat the point spread. Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma football coach, says one of the reasons he quit going to cocktail parties a few years ago was his disgust at overhearing a respected businessman refer to him as "that bastard who cost me $5,000." Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers says he hears boos—"those low, throaty, ominous ones"—whenever he neglects to pad a lead that is still short of the implacable point spread. Jim Walden, the football coach at Washington State, says, "I am amazed at how many people will go out of their way to let me know they've lost money—even a dollar—on a WSU game. Betting is one of the main reasons people get down on coaches. I think there have been some stupid decisions made involving the firing of coaches because guys with money—and influence—are betting on games."

•Sports gambling is so big that before the Bears beat the Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl, bettors could get action in Nevada on almost anything, including the point spread (Bears by 10), the odds (4 to 1, Bears), winner of the pregame coin toss (even), which team would have the most yards penalized (New England 6 to 5), whether Walter Payton or Craig James would rush for more yards (Payton was a 7 to 5 pick), which player in the game would score first (New England's Tony Franklin, who did it, was 5 to 2) and over-under totals for everything from two-team point totals (37½ points) to one-team point totals (Patriots, 13½) to point totals for each quarter (e.g., 7½ in the third quarter) to the number of turnovers (five) or field goals (three). With such a smorgasbord for gamblers to choose from, some $35 million was bet legally on the game. The illegal handle on the Super Bowl was somewhat bigger: probably in the $1 billion range.

•Sports gambling is so big that, among more than 125 newspapers surveyed by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the percentage running betting lines increased in just two years—from 1982 to 1984—from 50% to 70% in college football and from 67% to 77% in the NFL. Many of the papers also carry betting tips and advice. The rationale of sports editors is that it's news and they are providing a service. But Joe Vecchione of The New York Times, which refuses to run betting lines, says that "newspapers do not have a responsibility to encourage illegal acts, but to discourage them." Bob Knight, the Indiana basketball coach and a critic of sports gambling and the press, says that papers "might just as well run the telephone numbers of prostitutes." Walden says, "I think the media carrying betting information is detestable. It breeds dishonesty." Maybe so, but readers apparently demand it. After Greg Noble, sports editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, declared last summer that he would no longer print point spreads, he got so many angry phone calls that the paper reinstated them.

•Sports gambling is so big that there are at least 700 tout services dispensing gambling information freely across state lines—the largest through toll-free long-distance phone numbers. The touts even have their own trade group, the American Association of Documented Sports Services. Two days before Super Bowl XX, USA Today ran a full page of ads for tout services—33 in all—promising to provide the winner of the big game. The services have names like Prophet Line Sports and Winners Circle, Inc., and they range from tiny mom-and-pop operations to full-blown corporate entities with dozens of high-pressure telephone salesmen, some of whom earn as much as $50,000 a year in commissions. Legally, the tout services cannot book or place bets. What they sell is information and advice for gamblers. It costs anywhere from $25 to $175 for a single game pick to $2,000 for a full season's slate. The largest services accept Visa or MasterCard. Sadly, the tout services even captured a couple of old NFL stars. Johnny Unitas and Billy Kilmer have lent their good names to these enterprises. Unitas has severed his connection, but Kilmer's direct-mail pitch conjures up visions of "Bundles and Bundles of Cold Hard Cash" and provides his assurances that he is "winning more money than I ever made playing football."

•Sports gambling is so big that not even the Greek and his colleagues on network TV, not even the published line and handicapping selections in the newspapers, not even those 700-odd tout services, are quite enough. In this garden of excess, gambling shows on cable TV have also blossomed. On ESPN during the past NFL playoffs you could have watched Sportsline, a half-hour show from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas that provided the lines and pregame dope on upcoming games. Not to be outdone, USA Network offered its Beat the Pros show. Jim Zrake, the executive producer of sports for USA, recently told the Los Angeles Times that he doubted that the show would be picked up again next season. But he also said, "Looking at it professionally, I don't think it's terribly wrong. As a programmer, we try to provide something for everyone."

•Sports gambling is so big that Los Angeles police last December arrested five people they said were part of a ring that took in an estimated $1.5 million a week in sports bets, including $450,000 by phone in about an hour. Big-bucks sports gambling also goes on in small towns and on college campuses. A week before the L.A. bust, 11 present or former University of Nebraska students were arrested in Lincoln on bookmaking charges. Campus police said their investigation revealed fraternity members stealing from one another to pay off debts that ran as high as $8,000. They said that 30 students had acted as "runners" and that one student-bookie handled $112,000 in bets in just 12 weeks. The Omaha World-Herald quoted one Nebraska student-bookmaker as calling the arrests "the tip of the iceberg" at the school and saying, "It's no problem for me to do $5,000 to $6,000 worth of action a weekend."

Clearly, sports gambling in this country has grown to gargantuan proportions in recent years. It has also gained a widespread acceptance and public respectability that would certainly have outraged Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The effect on sports of so much gambling is to make the game less important than the bet. The immediate expression of this misdirected priority is the cheering in the stands for teams to beat not the opponent but the point spread. The ultimate expression is the fixed game. And here is the crux of gambling's dark influence on sport: The one consistent despoiler of our games—from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 to the fixed fights, fixed races and fixed college basketball games of the last four decades—is gambling. It is important to remember that sports events are fixed because of gambling and for no other reason.

It is not being overly dramatic to say that gambling poisons the atmosphere of any game it comes near. It is certainly one of the reasons that so many fans are so quick to think the worst about athletes and the games they play. Gambling accounts for much of the cynicism that hangs over sports. Before a recent Super Bowl, SI's Martin Dardis found himself sitting next to the father of the favored team's backup quarterback. Dardis said he hoped the son got into the game. "I don't—I gave 13 points," replied the father. He may have been joking, but in the prevailing climate it seems only too likely that a father would indeed put his betting interest ahead of seeing his own boy play in the Super Bowl.

Sports gambling is now generally seen as a naughty-but-nice diversion, yet at times it is anything but that. It is easy to lose sight of its violent side. Last year Hal Smith, a major North Side Chicago bookmaker, was beaten, slashed and tortured, and his body was stuffed into the trunk of his Cadillac. Afterward, it was revealed that his book had reached an annual gross of $140 million. From this, Smith's take-home pay would have been between $3 and $4 million. John Walsh, an IRS agent in Chicago, says Smith's health was in jeopardy from the moment IRS agents raided his home in 1983 and found $600,000 in cash in a canvas bag. Walsh says that the discovery didn't sit well with organized crime bosses who believed Smith was stiffing the Mob.

Despite such vivid reminders of sports gambling's jungle environment and despite the dramatic increase in such gambling, chasing bookmakers is no longer considered cost effective for law enforcement agencies. As William Hundley, former head of the Justice Department's organized crime section, former NFL security director and now a Washington lawyer, explains it, many judges have accepted "the inevitable—that gambling is part of the game." Former Attorney General William French Smith says, "We have been outmanned and outgunned in the war on gambling." But Hundley says, "We have just been out-p.r.'d."

Any attempt that is made to wage an effective campaign against gambling immediately runs afoul of several persistent myths that have flourished on the subject. They include:

Myth I: The legalization of sports betting will benefit everyone except organized crime.

The idea that legalized—and therefore taxed—sports gambling will not only pave roads and paint schoolhouses but will also lessen gambling's harmful influence draws guffaws from those who have given the notion more than a cursory evaluation. Ex-FBI agent Michaels says that one thing the growth of sports gambling in Nevada did was "plug in a whole new generation of bettors. You now see kids in the schoolyard with tout sheets sticking out of their back pockets." Nor does organized crime take to its heels in the face of legalization. Quite the contrary. James Harmon, executive director of the President's Commission on Organized Crime, points out that far from fleeing Las Vegas when gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, the Mob actually gravitated there in quest of the enormous cash flow that legal gambling can produce. "When you legalize gambling, the illegal percentage goes up no matter what you do," says Harmon.

Like drug legalization, legal gambling holds appeal for those who believe that the solution to anything difficult to eliminate through law enforcement is to make it legal. What legalization advocates tend to overlook is that when illegal operators rush in behind legalized gambling, they often eat up a good-size piece of the anticipated tax-revenue pie. Sergeant John Sparkman, a member of the Atlantic City police department's crime analysis unit, says, "We just put 35 more men on at a cost of over a million dollars. We have about 425 men now, which is an increase of 125 since the casinos opened in 1978." That increase is necessary because crime in Atlantic City is up about 300% since casino gambling was legalized there. The quality of life has been adversely affected in other ways. Says Sparkman, "There's not one movie theater here or one bowling alley. It's not a family-oriented place anymore. As far as I'm concerned, it's the worst thing that ever happened to this city."

Myth II: The administrators of sport are so fearful of fixed games that they do everything in their power to thwart the gambling influence.

To be sure, the people who run sports on both the pro and college levels are, without exception, genuinely fearful of fixed games. But being against fixes is one thing; trying to do something about gambling is quite another. Administrators do speak out against the expansion of legalized gambling. They also warn athletes and club officials to beware of suspicious characters, to stay away from the wrong kinds of establishments and not to gamble on games. Security departments are maintained to investigate rumors and watch for telltale fluctuations in betting lines.

The NCAA has put together an antigambling task force and recommends that its membership "refrain from cooperating with any publication that depends on 'tout and tip-sheet' advertising revenue." The NCAA has a policy of withholding credentials for the Final Four basketball tournament from publications that have too much of a pro-gambling slant. Because of all the tout-service ads it carried, USA Today was barred from the press box at the 1984 NCAA Division I-AA football championship.

The Pac-10, ACC and Mid-America conferences have all requested—apparently to no avail—that the media in their areas quit publishing and broadcasting betting lines. St. John's basketball players are required to sign an oath that they will report any attempted bribes. Dave Cawood, assistant executive director of the NCAA and the man in charge of its anti-gambling activities, says, "The best thing is to keep on talking about gambling. Make everyone constantly aware of the gambling presence. We've already had two scandals in five years [Tulane and Boston College]. Now we want everyone to be aware—and alarmed—about the danger of it happening again."

But all too often, sports officials give the impression that they really don't object that much to gambling, especially when it puts more fans in the stands. Certainly the considerable contribution of gambling to pro football's popularity is not lost on NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Some people contend that gambling is what gave the NFL its great popularity, and Rozelle did nothing to refute that notion in an interview on NBC's NFL '85 show last Nov. 17. Asked point-blank whether he would push a button to eliminate all gambling on NFL games if such a magical button existed, Rozelle danced around the question without flatly saying that he would do so. And when asked about the importance of point spreads to the popularity of the NFL, he merely said, "I don't think [they're] as big a drawing card as the game itself."

The NFL's seemingly tolerant attitude toward gambling appears to be shared by the TV networks. This shouldn't be surprising because televised pro football is as connected to the gambling experience as a man's leg is to his hip. The networks need full armchairs—people anchored in front of sets watching games. It doesn't matter that the viewer is watching a Seattle vs. Kansas City blowout from his parlor in Rutland, Vt. It doesn't matter that the game is one-sided, boring, full of mistakes. What matters is that the point spread is in doubt. What matters is that the man in Vermont has something going. So each week, millions of gamblers—from the $1 office-pool player to the most desperate $50,000 plunger—habitually tune in to NFL games they could have no earthly reason to watch except to follow a bet. Many of them track their picks, hypnotized, hour after hour, Sunday after Sunday, through all kinds of NFL games, be they monstrosities or masterpieces.

The networks try to play down their dependence on—and encouragement of—gambling. Neal Pilson, executive vice-president of CBS Sports, for example, insists that Jimmy the Greek is on the air merely because he's a "personality." Don Ohlmeyer, an original ABC Sports whiz kid, later executive producer of NBC Sports and now an independent producer, says the networks have never encouraged gambling because it is "a destructive thing, a disease," as witnessed by what he calls "sick, degenerate" gamblers who "bet on the first half, the second half, the over-and-under, on everything." But when NBC's Bryant Gumbel asked Pete Axthelm in an interview earlier this year whether he might not be promoting gambling with the detailed NFL point-spread information he provided, the Ax replied, "Oh, definitely. I think gambling is great fun."

So why blame the NFL for any of this? Here's one reason: According to the NCAA's Cawood, the colleges have "made our position known from the beginning to the TV networks" by stating flatly that they want no Axthelm-style touting on college sports telecasts. The NFL has refrained from doing the same thing, the official explanation being that it doesn't want to be accused of trying to control TV's editorial product. But industry sources say that the NFL could easily have made the exclusion of touts an issue during rights negotiations. Bob Tassie, vice-president of communications for CBS, says, "The NFL has always had a very public antigambling profile that it would prefer networks not have those people on the shows, but in private it seems to run away from the issue."

The public antigambling stance taken by both the NFL and the networks fails to fool one of the greatest living experts on sports gambling, Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal, 56, a former handicapper, line-maker and casino operator who pleaded nolo contendere in 1963 to a charge of attempting to fix a college basketball game and, in 1983, suddenly retired to a seaside community south of Los Angeles after members of his peer group blew up his Cadillac in Las Vegas—with him in it. "Television actively encourages millions of people to gamble," says Rosenthal. "Who are they kidding? When the NFL publishes its weekly injury lists, it's for gamblers. When CBS says, 'We'll be right back with Jimmy the Greek,' who are they appealing to? When on NBC the Ax says, 'Bet these,' what kind of advice is that?"

Over the years, Rozelle has taken a number of strong anti-gambling actions, including the suspension of Paul Hornung and Alex Karras in 1963 for betting on games, the enforced dissociation of Joe Namath from his Bachelors III restaurant in Manhattan because it was frequented by gambler/ hoodlum types, and the suspension in 1983 of Baltimore Colt quarterback Art Schlichter for heavy gambling. The NFL now says it issues 10 to 12 warnings a year to specific players about associating with gamblers and, like the other professional sports leagues, it likes to give the impression that it has an efficient security staff that pounces on cases involving improper associations.

In point of fact, the NFL often doesn't act on players' gambling activities and associations until it is hit in the face with them—and perhaps not even then. Hornung told SI that there were 10 or 12 other Green Bay Packer players who regularly wagered on NFL games in the team's glory days. He said that betting on games by players was rampant throughout the league. Nevertheless, only he and Karras were suspended. It speaks further of the NFL's laxity in gambling-related matters that Schlichter was suspended by Rozelle only after he had been betting for years and had run up massive debts to bookmakers who threatened to break his passing arm. Finally, in desperation, Schlichter took his woes to the FBI, which contacted the NFL.

NFL executive vice-president Jay Moyer says that the league spends "close to a million dollars a year" on security and has part-time representatives in every NFL city and three full-time regional reps. "There are a lot of resources we can't muster," Moyer says. "We're not monolithic. We don't have unlimited manpower and resources." Nevertheless, Moyer insists that the NFL has been "effective" in its efforts to minimize gambling's influence on players and officials.

What, then, of the league's total ignorance of the fact that one of its quarterbacks had run up nearly $400,000 in gambling debts? Moyer says that the NFL was in the dark about Schlichter because the player had been dealing with "freelance, small-time" bookmakers and that "the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies had never heard of [Schlichter's] penchant for sports gambling until he contacted them." But one of the reasons the NFL and other leagues maintain nationwide security networks is that law-enforcement officials don't aggressively police sports gambling. The leagues supposedly want to be able to quickly discover worrisome activities on their own. At any rate, law-enforcement agencies in Ohio had been aware of Schlichter's fondness for gambling at the racetrack, if not with bookies, since his senior year at Ohio State (see story on page 74).