Athletes still are human

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:38 AM ET

Rick Tocchet has been charged with promoting gambling. It could cost him his livelihood and reputation. Maybe even his freedom.

And, so the spectre of Pete Rose, of the Black Sox and of an ambivalent society that cannot decide whether gambling is good, or the devil's spawn, confronts the NHL.

Gambling and sports always have had a turbulent love affair. We expect our athletes to be above taking a flutter but, at the same time, 60 million of us bet on Sunday's Super Bowl.

Sports gambling is a multibillion-dollar business. The National Football League is built on the point spread. If Tocchet were living in Las Vegas promoting gambling it would make him a businessman instead of a potential con.

Seven years ago there were no Internet gambling sites. Now, according to industry reports, there are more than 1,400.

The sports leagues are unanimous in their damnation of wagering. David Stern won't let an NBA team set foot in Vegas because of it. Curiously, while Tocchet faces the docket, the NHL's general managers this week are holding meetings in Henderson, Nev. Guess they wanted to be next door to Las Vegas for the cheap dinners and the pretty lights.

Society, gambling and sports have become wrapped in a blanket of hypocrisy. Tocchet's alleged bookmaking is minuscule when compared with Canada's biggest bookie operation -- our government-run lotteries.

Even newspapers run betting lines and have racing pundits.

"It has been going on for thousands of years. It's part of our everyday life. There are endless March Madness pools. Gambling is omnipresent and always has been, even when there were severe penalties," Ken Kirkwood, a professor of sports ethics at University of Western Ontario, says.

There is no indication of rigging games on Tocchet's part.

"There's a difference between rigging a game and making a bet. Athletes should be allowed to make a bet just like the rest of us. That shouldn't be a crime. If they're rigging games, then arrest them," John Eliot, an author and expert in ethics in sport at Rice University, says.

In the world of vices, gambling has become a little like marijuana. People know it's against the law but they aren't sure anymore exactly why, or when, it is. Or should be.

So, two years ago, Jaromir Jagr agrees to pay $450,000 to settle a debt with an Internet gambling site. The NHL cringes. Society shrugs.

So, last October, Michael Jordan, on 60 Minutes, admits his gambling was "stupid" and a book, Jordan Rules, intimates that it precipitated his temporary departure from the NBA. Smelling salts for Mr. Stern, please. Society yawns.

So, Pete Rose is suspended for life from baseball and banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame. When he goes to see the commissioner for clemency, Bud Selig shakes his hand -- then, acts like he just got cooties. Society wonders why, and if it isn't all a little much.

The punishment for gambling athletes, it can be argued, often are worse than the crimes. "We've lost perspective. When you have people dying because of steroid use ... lying to Congress, that's much worse ... than gambling," Eliot says.

The most recent NHLer to be suspended for gambling was Don Gallinger, a 22-year-old star centre for the Boston Bruins, who in 1948 was given a life sentence. Condemned by league president Clarence Campbell, he lost his wife, his kids, his friends and ended up in a mental hospital. Society shrugged. Forgot him. The hockey world never forgave him. He never worked again as a player or a coach.

The people who run our sports world come down hard on gambling for business -- not ethical -- reasons. "The leagues are always concerned it will be a taint on their sport ... that the outcome of the contest will be contaminated by outside interests," Kirkwood says. "Don't call it a moral problem. Call it what it is; a problem in terms of business, in marketing."

So, a player can inflict injury and try to end someone's career, as has happened in the NFL and NHL recently, and get suspended for a couple games -- but supposedly Janet Gretzky can't get down a bet without it becoming an international incident.

None of this vindicates Tocchet, but it should spark debate about our attitudes toward gambling. To some the issue is freedom. After all, George Washington bet on horses and Ben Franklin and John Hancock ran lotteries.

All of which leaves Tocchet accused of committing one of sports' most heinous crimes and one of society's smallest indiscretions.


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