Betting on Integrity

In the wake of Deflategate, we pause to reflect on real sports scandals—and ponder if they could ever happen again

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

We didn’t come here to talk about Tom Brady’s deflated balls. We’re not going to waste precious column inches discussing how hard Tommy has to work to get a grip on them, or how unhappy he gets when his balls aren’t treated properly over the course of the game.

That, after all, would be juvenile.

Deflategate (or Ballghazi, if you please) might have the pundits calling for Bill Belichick’s head (as if his decapitated robot body wouldn’t just keep lumbering on regardless). But as scandals go, it’s as relatively malign as other historical efforts in goofy gamesmanship, from Joe Niekro’s nail file to Graig Nettles’ adventures in Super Balls.

Yet on the heels of last week’s admission by Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson (still feels weird to say) that he paid two ball boys $7,500 to scuff up the pigskin prior to his Buccaneers’ blowout win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, it all combines to … maybe not shake your foundation of faith in sports betting, but at the very least give it the side-eye.

At the Mob Museum on January 21, a panel consisting of former Gaming Control Board Chairman Pete Bernhard, sports betting legal expert Barry Lieberman, pro bettor Ted Sevransky and longtime Vegas oddsmaker Art Manteris (now with Station Casinos) got together to discuss sketchiness and the law in sports betting. The discussion touched on the usual suspects (the 1919 Black Sox, the ’94 Arizona State point-shaving scandal) as well as the somewhat more esoteric (such as Billy Walters and the Computer Group).

Soothing, folksy reassurances came from the panel: Pros make too much money to take a dive these days. Besides, the industry is itself as much at the mercy of fixers as the public. It’s in everyone’s best interest to stay on the level.

“I think our industry is much more credible than people give it credit for,” Manteris says. “I had a study done by Las Vegas Sports Consultants in 2000. They reviewed all the games [Nevada] booked between 1990 and 2000—everything. They took every documented case of impropriety—Tulane, Arizona State, Boston College. Their analysis was that the number of events [involving impropriety] we book in Nevada over a decade was less than 0.01 percent.”

Maybe. But there’s a romance to shadiness. Just ask any horse bettor who giddily skips to the window with a hot tip from the backstretch on a long shot. (Then ask them again when they find out that tip filtered down from the trainer’s busboy’s girlfriend’s uncle.)

Modern data-mining may have shaved the rough edges off old-school betting scandals, but that doesn’t mean those luscious, shadowy margins don’t exist in the college ranks, or with less-scrutinized sports.

“Any sport where anyone is underpaid is susceptible to shenanigans,” Sevransky says. “It’s not necessarily the guys who [are playing]. If you want to make a [basketball] game go under the total, if you’ve got a timekeeper who just starts the clock a second early and ends it a second late, over the course of the game you’re going to kill three or four possessions. But the more eyeballs, the more TV cameras that are paying attention, the less likely you can get away with this stuff.”

Certainly, no league has more eyeballs on it than the NFL—especially on Super Bowl Sunday. Still, does that make the Seahawks-Patriots clash a smart bet? Aren’t you better off wagering on a Blackhawks game, where the oddsmakers and public aren’t parsing every detail?

“Yes,” Sevransky says, “but that’s almost un-American. You don’t see a lot of sharp bettors loading up on a side or the total in the Super Bowl. Those numbers are right where they’re supposed to be. But the sharp bettors will get involved in the proposition market, big time.”

Wait, aren’t those the goofy sucker bets, like, “Will there be a safety in the first half?” or “What will be greater: the number of points LeBron James scores on Sunday or Brady’s number of completions?”

Sevransky stares, like we’re a spreadsheet proffering a minus-3 matchup when the book lists plus-7, the corner of his mouth drawing up.

“Who you talking to?”

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