Sports' dirty secret

Sports betting touches every sport at almost every level, in every league and it knows no national...

Sports betting touches every sport at almost every level, in every league and it knows no national boundaries.

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 11:33 AM ET

Organized crime and sports. They go together like fleas on a junkyard dog.

Throw in our society's love affair with gambling and for better, or worse, it can get messy.

"The whole idea behind sport is that it should be a fair contest. When you raise the issue of gamblers changing the outcome of a contest, you can line it up with steroids as a threat to the integrity of sport," says Kevin Wamsley, who as acting dean of health sciences at the University of Western Ontario, has studied how sports and gambling can become uncomfortable bedfellows.

Wagering has been around so long that somebody probably had odds on whether Moses would make it past the Egyptian seashore. Canada's indigenous people wagered on everything from spear tossing to snowshoe races. Archeological evidence suggests animal knuckle bones were once used as dice.

In Canada, the only legal sports betting until the early 1970s involved horse racing -- and all that did was make the racetrack a haven for mobsters and a murky enticement our mothers warned us to avoid. The warnings didn't stop some from exploring the dark side then.

It hasn't changed much now. Today, professional sports bodies warn of similar evils where a friendly little wager leads down a conduit of organized crime to loan sharking, point shaving and despair. Often, they get the same reaction as the mothers of a bygone generation.

"You are worried about people having an impact on the outcome of the game, having outside pressures influence how (players) perform on the ice," says Bill Daly, vice-president of the National Hockey League, which had to launch into damage control when a wagering scandal tainted the image of both itself and its greatest star.

The issue touches every sport at almost every level, in every league and it knows no national boundaries. So, in the wake of an investigation of 40 match-fixing incidents by UEFA, English Football Association chairman David Triesman calls for a ban on betting on any soccer by players, managers and officials.

This comes not long after a book by Declan Hill unveiled compelling evidence that corruption may have touched some of the world's greatest soccer matches.

The NBA is still so sensitive about the gambling issue that, after five weeks of repeated requests for an interview, there remained merely the voice of deafening silence. Tim Donaghy can do that to an organization.

In an NCAA survey of 2,000 football players, 102 admitted they'd taken money to play poorly, knew a teammate who had taken money, been threatened or harmed because of sports wagering or been contacted by an outside source to share information.

One of those "outside" sources used to be Michael Franzese, or at least guys who worked for the former capo of New York's notorious Colombo Family.

"The leagues and the NCAA realize they can overcome a lot. They can overcome the steroid issues. They can overcome the harassment issues and guys getting in trouble for guns, and (fans) will still come back. But if there is a gambling scandal, if fans think athletes are doing something to change the nature of the competition, that is going to be a problem," Franzese says.

"It has always been a big fear and it's very real. Athletes have a propensity to gamble. It's an extension of their competitive spirit and if they get themselves in trouble, get addicted, you know they'll do something to affect the outcome of a game. It's that simple. That's what the leagues are afraid of."

Franzese would know. He made more money for a crime family than anyone since Al Capone and was also a silent partner with Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom in a sports management agency.

"Organized crime is," he says, "all around."

In Germany, soccer referee Robert Hoyzer received a two-year prison sentence for taking payments from a Croatian-led betting ring to manipulate four matches.

The International Cricket Council brought charges against Maurice Odumbe for match fixing. Odumbe was found guilty and banned from cricket for five years.

Then there was the revelation last year in Britain by The Independent, substantiated by the head of the country's foremost clinic for treating sportsmen with addictions, that an "epidemic" of gambling has led to incidents of corrupt on-field behaviour in order to repay debts to bookmakers.

How deeply gambling tentacles root themselves in sports is confirmed in a study by Garry Smith, a professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, who has been researching gambling for 25 years. His investigations show more than 1,000 bookmakers are operating in Toronto alone.

True, many are small operators but it does illustrate how gambling has become so integrated into our sports culture. It is abhored, yet cultivated. There is a certain hypocrisy when on any given NFL Sunday there are just as many people cheering the over/under as the numbers on the scoreboard.

"They (the NFL) turn a blind eye ... like it's something they're totally against," says Smith, yet, "if it wasn't for gambling, the NFL wouldn't have near the popularity that it now enjoys."

Pete Rose, baseball's greatest hitting machine, has been banished to a sports Gulag, the doors to the Hall of Fame slammed in his face after Rose's admission that he gambled on his own team -- even if it was with the confidence that they would always win. Conversely, two other icons, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan, survived unscathed against all odds, when they were linked to gambling scandals.

Journalist Armen Keteyian's book Money Players claims Jordan was kicked out of the NBA for his gambling proclivity. Keteyian also suggested that Jordan may have bet on professional sports. Jordan had substantial gambling debts to people such as James Bouler, a convicted drug dealer.

In 1993, Richard Esquinas, one of Jordan's golfing partners, wrote a book claiming that Jordan owed him $1.25 million. In the same year, Jordan was found playing blackjack in Atlantic City just hours before suiting up for a playoff game.

The league investigated Jordan's gambling habits. A few months later, Jordan retired. A few days after the retirement, the NBA cleared Jordan of any wrongdoing.

This year, Jordan was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame. Rose still waits. It indicates a certain ambiguity. Even sports leagues aren't quite certain how cosy to get with gambling and its potential fallout.

"There's a conflict. (NHL) teams have casino advertising right on the boards. They're willing to get money from it but they don't want it to taint their enterprise," Smith tells Sun Media. "If they're so opposed to gambling you'd think they'd be completely opposed (but) the Penguins are tied to a casino. The CFL had a deal with Bowmans, an Internet betting site, for a few years which seems a bit weird.

"The new arena in Edmonton -- they want to have a casino in it. In one way they try to distance themselves ... in another they promote it. In Alberta, it would have to be a charity casino. So, who's the charity going to be? The Oilers."

The ambivalence of leagues toward levying serious penalties (not more than five years) is understandable. It is an extension of our society where wagering -- if the outcome of events isn't compromised -- is considered a benign vice. Most Canadians view bookmaking with indifference.

"In a time of fiscal cutbacks, law enforcement has placed a lower priority on what are perceived to be minor crimes ... public pressure has dictated that prostitution and child pornography ... be the main investigative targets," Smith concludes in his study.

But Earnel Lucas, vice-president of security for Major League Baseball, sees it as anything but benign.

"It starts out just gambling and from there it's a downward spiral into loan sharking, possibly prostitution and other illegal activities," he says. "It's a big concern because it has the potential to affect the integrity of our sport. It could jeopardize a player's career, his family and ultimately his freedom. Every police department and law enforcement agency in the country has an organized crime unit ... they believe it's real and an ever present danger. We in baseball believe it's a threat."

Baseball, perhaps more than any other pro sport, has learned and reacted to the scandals within its own house -- more than in other jurisdictions such as the NBA and NCAA, where this summer six former University of Toledo football and basketball players were indicted in a point-shaving scheme.

Rule 21 is posted on every baseball clubhouse bulletin board. OK, at spring training it often ended up next to the clubhouse Final Four pool sheet but at least baseball admits it has issues trying to keep out the bad guys.

"You go to any clubhouse and that rule is posted in Spanish and English. That's how important we believe it is," Lucas says. "It must be read by a club official to every player at spring training ... signed by that club official and returned to this office with a list of all the individuals present when it was read."

Each January, MLB organizes a rookie career development program that features speakers from law enforcement, judges, prosecutors and former criminals such as Franzese.

"We've instituted sign-in policies so we know who goes in and who goes out of the clubhouses," Lucas says. "We've established phone logs so we can track calls coming in and going out of the club houses, particularly prior to the game. Overall, we've restricted access because we know it can be preyed upon by individuals."

The security department also has a resident security agent program which uses active law enforcement officers in every city who, Lucas says, "become the eyes and ears of major league baseball to protect the sport and educate players and club officials."

Lucas' vice men visit each club every year to warn players how easy it is to get trapped by organized gambling.

"We walk out of our presentations and we can hear a pin drop. The message hits home."

It better because the mob doesn't always come wearing dark suits, sunglasses and talk in deep, raspy voices.

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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