|Monday, February 10
Is sports gambling with its integrity?
By Tom Farrey
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Given the historical support for its college and pro teams, greater Hartford might be the capital of women's basketball. The area is seen as a beacon of hope for anyone trying to promote the game. Suburban families, grandmotherly ladies and middle-aged men seem appreciative of its below-the-basket style and have packed arenas to see to the wildly successful UConn women's team, and previously the New England Blizzard of the now-defunct American Basketball League.
The Connecticut Sun, namesake of the Mohegan Sun casino, will play in a 10,000-seat arena attached to the massive gaming complex, where dice roll, roulette wheels spin, and 6,200 slot machines whir through the night. It was here after an exhibition game two years ago that Michael Jordan, the high-rolling NBA star who owns two restaurants in the casino, famously turned $500,000 in losses into an estimated $800,000 in winnings in a single night of smoking, drinking and blackjack with fellow NBA players Antoine Walker and Richard Hamilton.
And, ultimately, it is here that sports will test the limits on its long-held taboo -- that athletes and gamblers shall not mix.
"It's the proverbial foot in the door," said Tom McMillen, the former NBA player and Maryland congressman. "It could lead to teams being placed in Las Vegas. It could lead to other states looking at more creative ways to raise revenues, possibly looking at gambling as it relates to sports. It will be interesting to see where all of this leads 10 years from now."
McMillen served on Capitol Hill in 1991 when the NBA's David Stern and other league commissioners pleaded with lawmakers to stop the expansion of legalized sports gambling by states. Like fire-and-brimstone preachers, they decried the evils that could visit sports should more states join Nevada in taking wagers on games. The NBA had even sued Oregon, successfully, to keep NBA games out of its state lottery.
Today, if Stern were to go back before the D.C. politicians, he might sound more like a gaming industry lobbyist.
"In a country where 40 states have (lotteries), and state legislators decided long ago to bet the grocery money to help education by picking a lottery ticket, gambling is the American way," Stern said in an interview for ESPN's "Outside The Lines." "Gambling is out of the bag. We are a nation of lottery players, slot-machine players, etc. I won't start moralizing about that. My narrow area of protection is the NBA and basketball betting."
More than any of the marquee leagues, the NBA has come to tolerate -- and even embrace -- the gambling industry. Since his testimony on Capitol Hill a decade ago, Stern has welcomed ownership groups with significant casino operations, allowed teams to enter into sponsorship deals with casinos, and permitted other teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, to play preseason games in Las Vegas. This year, the league is even advertising on New Jersey state lottery tickets; the NBA team logos on those tickets are so large they look like ducats to a game.
The NBA, surpassed only by the NFL as the most bet-upon league in sports, remains uncomfortable with gambling on its games. Discussion about possibly moving the then-Vancouver Grizzlies to Las Vegas was nixed in 1999 when Stern said the only way that could happen is if Nevada casinos stop taking money on NBA games. They didn't, and the Grizzlies now call Memphis home.
"That's something we would have to look very closely at," she said.
Joe Maloof, whose family owns Sacramento's NBA Kings and WNBA Monarchs, said the NBA's changing attitude in recent years reflects a modern view of the gambling industry. He scoffs at the NFL for recently rejecting a Super Bowl television advertisement from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a move widely mocked in the media as hypocritical considering that the league's popularity is owed partly to the fact that football is the favorite sport of bettors.
"I think it's an old way of thinking, to be honest," Maloof said. "I think a lot of it could be ignorance of what it really takes to get a casino license. It's near impossible to get one if you have any kind of (criminal or other problems) in your background."
The Maloof family owns The Palms, one of the hippest casinos in Las Vegas, where MTV's "Real World" called its home last year. While the NFL and Major League Baseball prohibit owners from having any investment in casinos, the NBA had no problem with the Maloofs buying into the league, as long as The Palms does not offer wagers on NBA games, Maloof said. The family bought a minority share of the Kings in 1997, and took controlling interest in 1999.
"We want them to know that they're welcome there, that we would appreciate their business," Maloof said.
Shaquille O'Neal has said the Maloofs are among the only Kings he likes -- because they gave him a good rate at their casino hotel.
The historical fear among league commissioners is that associating with gamblers could lead to point-shaving and game-fixing. Merely the fear that the public might suspect that the games lack integrity has caused some leagues to take strict measures to put up walls between athletes and casinos. Major League Baseball has been among the most aggressive leagues in that respect, most notably during the Bowie Kuhn era of the 1970s.
Slowly, that attitude might be changing. Baseball once banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for taking jobs as greeters at Atlantic City casinos, but last April hired Rich Garcia and Frank Pulli, two former umpires once sanctioned for illegal gambling in 1989, to supervise its umpires. And commissioner Bud Selig was said to be giving serious consideration to reinstating Pete Rose, though talk has died down since Rose was reportedly spotted in two Las Vegas casinos.
In the NHL, with two franchises currently in bankruptcy courts in the U.S. and Canada, the cash-strapped Calgary Flames are pushing to put a casino inside its arena. And even horse racing tracks, the very sport built on betting, have sought slot machines to augment the industry's dwindling handle.
"We think the problem is sports betting," Stern said, "and we will work with the other leagues to prohibit sports betting in any jurisdiction that it isn't currently legal, which pretty much means Las Vegas."
Stern surely knows, though, that sportsbooks are everywhere these days. In the era of the Internet, placing a bet on a game is as simple as turning on a laptop and typing in the address of a foreign sportsbook. The online gambling industry continues to grow, even though the U.S. government considers such gambling illegal.
Also, some wonder if the memory of the 1919 Black Sox scandal that shaped league attitudes for the past century is starting to lose its sway, replaced by the notion that pro sports has not encountered a known attempt at a fixed game in more than 50 years. Point-shaving scandals in recent decades have been limited to college teams, where athletes are paid only the value of their scholarships.
Maloof argues that with the rising salaries in pro sports, athletes have too much at stake to bet on their own games, much less shave points.
"I just don't think that goes on at all," he said. "With the high salaries they make now, they would ruin themselves forever if they made a bet. They'd be banned from the NBA."
But the NBA shouldn't dismiss that possibility out of hand, McMillen said. The more permissive the league becomes in its association with gambling interests, and the more often it puts athletes in the company of gamblers, the greater the risk that some players could become vulnerable to people looking to profit from them.
"The fact is, a player can go out and run up a $1 million, $2 million gambling debt and could be pressed to pay it," McMillen said. "You know, there are all kinds of insidious, subtle pressures that are at play here."
As the NBA moves forward, the league may find out whether it was decades of anti-gambling zealotry or mere coincidence that kept its games clean all these years.
"Will we look back (a decade from now) and see a much, much stronger alliance between gambling and sports? That's probably going to happen," McMillen said. "And if that happens, all you need is one major incident and you can do tremendous damage to the integrity of sports. I think that's a risk factor that professional sports, and particularly the NBA, need to take a look at."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.