Albert Figone discusses gambling and game fixing in college sports

Albert J. Figone is a professor emeritus of kinesiology and a former head baseball and assistant football coach at Humboldt State University.  He answered our questions about his new book Cheating the Spread: Gamblers, Point Shavers, and Game Fixers in College Football and Basketball.

1. What makes college basketball and college football vulnerable to game fixing scandals?

Figone: Spectator sports in the United States have involved gambling on their outcomes from their inception. Boxing and baseball were almost destroyed by individuals who took a dive and fixed games; professional wrestling turned into an exhibition because of gambling; and pedestrianism (i.e. today’s marathons) were at times rigged as they were bet on.

During football’s early history in the late 19th century, the lack of organized supervision allowed college athletes to play on professional teams for money. Gamblers and bookies made money on these leagues as gambling and rigging final scores were prevalent. Undoubtedly, player and gambler connections from these leagues carried over to college
competition. Opposing college players gambled on the games’ outcomes, among
themselves and bookies, and gamblers attended practices and games to proposition players, and obtain inside information. Virtually every meeting of college authorities in the first 40 years of college football included a discussion on how to rid the parasite of gambling from the sport.

Cover for figone: Cheating the Spread: Gamblers, Point Shavers, and Game Fixers in College Football and Basketball. Click for larger imageThe annual Army-Navy game at Yankee Stadium was cancelled because over one million was bet on the game in 1947—the last year of the series.  Gamblers were spotted in hotels looking for players to do business was one of the reasons for suspending the game. Intersectional games played in off campus sites commanded the attention of big-time sports gamblers.

During college basketball’s early history, its players were not paid to play. They earned extra money playing professionally and often walked among the spectators before games to solicit wagers. As the sport gained popularity in colleges, betting on the sport and the point spread emerged as early as the 1920’s.  Betting on college sports significantly increased during the 1930’s as many bookies funded their trade with profits from the illicit sex and liquor businesses that emerged during Prohibition.  Many bookies remained in the trade when Prohibition was repealed in 1931.

During World War Two, the fixing of games increased in college basketball and college football.  Law enforcement’s attention was focused on the war effort, college authorities dismissed the rumored or actual game fixing primarily because of small team sizes, and more bookies switched to college sports as the government shut down horse racing. The point spread’s reported invention about 1939 (some authorities contend it was earlier) exacerbated betting in each sport. During the post-war period from 1945 to 1951 and thereafter, betting on college sports continued to grow and was ignored by the NCAA and law enforcement at the local level.

In many jurisdictions such as New York City, the police departments were paid by bookies allowing them to conduct business as they pleased.  Other cities such as: Lexington, Toledo, OH, and Portland, OR also winked an eye at the activity. The 1951 Basketball Scandal was exposed by a newspaper editor—not the New York County DA’s office. The DA began wiretapping in February 1951 and two years of investigations by the New York Herald’s crime reporters produced tons of evidence showing many college players in New York and Philadelphia were doing business with gamblers. Sports reporters in the 1940’s and 1950’s shielded the problem from the public by treating sports fans like mushrooms about widespread fixing in basketball and covering them with manure. The 1961 Basketball Scandal was twice the size as the one 10 years earlier. Bookies had quickly learned how to avoid detection while the college establishment demonstrated a remarkable learning dysfunction regarding gambling corruption in college sports.

From the early 1940’s until the 1980’s, the most common reasons for fixing games were: making extra money (i.e. everybody is doing it), fixing of games in specific regions of the U.S. were part of college basketball’s culture (i.e., New York, Lexington, KY, Portland, OR Louisville, Kansas City, Chicago, and Detroit), lack of institutional, conference, or NCAA attention to the problem, civil statutes that made sports bribing illegal were not enacted, and many police departments and politicians were receiving payoffs from bookies (i.e. Kefauver Commission in 1951 revealed the extent of the corruption). Many coaches ignored their players’ rigging games even as bookies smelled a fix and reported their suspicions to them. Everett Case of North Carolina State is the only coach on record to report his suspicions that three of his basketball players in 1961 were manipulating final scores. He contacted the North Carolina Bureau of Investigations and his suspicions were confirmed.

1980’s to 2000: Football and basketball players increasingly gambled on sports with campus bookies, college and professional sports gambling increasingly became socially popular, some players had become addicted to gambling while incurring gambling debts (i.e. from many types of wagering) which made them vulnerable to fixing offers, and some athletes have been risk takers like a Sociopath (i.e. I’ll beat the system). Many players observed their friends betting sports and did not know betting on sports for a college athlete was illegal.

Include factors such as players: with no money, bad grades,  see no future
as potential draftees,  know their efforts produce big profits for others, observing rules and laws not enforced uniformly (i.e. athletes are protected after committing criminal acts), and some coaches gamble themselves and strategize during the game according to the spread—a perfect storm for a scandal.

Recent gambling trends in the 21st century have also contributed to the problem: many athletes have been sports gambling since elementary school, feel alienated from teammates because of race, jealousies, and other reasons, and many have been softened with money, booze, and women from gamblers. Increased payoffs to players for recruiting and playing render the gambling menace more dangerous than ever in 2013.

Keep in mind, the problem involves 1% of all college athletes out of the estimated 430, 000.  Some critics believe this number may be as high as 5%. The biggest issue is that fixing a game and not playing honestly undermines our core beliefs about sports, society, and ourselves. Game Fixing is the Mother of All Scandals.  We don’t accept payoffs
from boosters, coaches violating NCAA rules, athletes not belonging in college, etc. But, we are led to believe these transgressions can be fixed by the colleges and archaic NCAA rules.

2. Is it always about the money?

Figone: No! other reasons include: hatred for a coach for varied reasons: broke recruiting promises, picks on certain players (i.e. at times has been a racial or other issues),  makes athletes feel powerless, is abusive emotionally and physically, and arranges for boosters to pay big money to a team’s high profile players such as: quarterbacks, running backs, or high scorers.  Thus, ignores paying players extra money that are instrumental to a team’s success and  see the system as exploitive.  High performing athletes have trained for over 10 years, now work for about $8.00 an hour, and keenly aware and reminded by fixers millions are made because of their efforts.  In a few instances, athletes will rig games for the thrill of the scam.

3. Do the players involved in point shaving scandals typically show remorse
when they are implicated?

Figone: Yes, because 90% of them believe they can beat the human sports betting system. The illusion: If 52.4% of money bet on human sports is won, a person will be slightly ahead. Win 60% of bets placed on sports and one wins big money. The remorse is for getting caught because the commercialized system has immunized the 1% from any loyalty to the program or institution. The media including the NCAA has “spun” to the public that Alan Athlete is highly committed to Tech U for mythical reasons. Unfortunately; most athletes don’t look at long-term consequences when they agree to play illegally. Many who threw away a future in which they could have a made a lot of money or have been labeled fixers have experienced emotional and physical problems in their lifetimes.

4. Who is the highest profile college coach to be involved in a college gambling scandal?

Figone: Take your pick: Nat Holman, Lou Rossini, Clair Bee, Adolph Rupp (most wins in this group), Everett Case, Gerry Bush, Joe Lapchick, Tom Davis, Norm Ellenberger, Fordy Anderson, Frank Ramsey, Bill Frieder (Steve Fisher’s predecessor), Buck Freeman, and many lesser profile people like assistant coaches, directors of athletics, trainers, team doctors, etc.

5. What is the most unusual case of game fixing that you encountered?

Figone: St. Joseph-Bradley game in Philadelphia in January, 1951. One of the Englisis brothers Nick, worked for one group of fixers and his job was too line up Bradley’s players to fix games in 1950 and 1951.

Nick arranged for the Bradley players to not cover the spread or win by less
than the spread as the group he represented bet big money St. Joseph’s. Bradley
was a heavy favorite. Meanwhile, in New York City, his brother Tony was working
for a group of fixers headed by Jack “Zip” West, a notorious mobster who believed he was double-crossed by Nick’s group who informed him the money was on Bradley to beat the spread. Furious about the double-cross he seized Tony at gun-point and told him to call Nick in Philadelphia to call off the rigged game. West undoubtedly would kill Tony if Bradley’s players covered the spread as the gangster would have lost a lot of money. He could not change his bet and held Tony hostage in his apartment.

Contacting his brother just before game time, Tony explained the circumstances and told Nick to call off the fix. Nick didn’t tell his backers, or they would have bought him a burial site in the East River. But, to make his backers think the game was a lock for them,
the Bradley players performed so badly that at the first quarter break; they were behind, 17-5. St. Joseph’s record was one the worst in college basketball while Bradley was ranked number one in the country. They did everything but shoot the ball for St. Joseph. At the break, Fordy Anderson asked the team: “Is everything okay? Is something wrong?” Obviously, he didn’t want to hear the players were rigging the game. But to save Tony’s life, Bradley stormed back and won the game by a big margin.

6. Is the current NCAA rulebook an impediment to ending these scandals?

Figone: Yes and No. No because the NCAA rule in 2013 states: An athlete is ineligible
for life if caught gambling on any sport, conspires to fix a game, or gambles on his own team, etc
. But, what occurs is that the NCAA along with a few money hungry schools make rigging a game inevitable. How? Because hypocrisy of the system is most evident
to athletes as the NCAA has passed rules to label athletes sham amateurs.

How many people treated grossly unfair in the workplace, have busted their tails for over 10 years, and are theoretically slaves, but classified as amateurs, would not listen to offers to fix games? Especially when approached by a slick emissary representing a group loosely defined as organized crime. How many individuals will say no, not withstanding that they will not report the offer if they refuse it because they don’t want to be fitted for a pair of cement shoes?

A scholarship for athletics is worth more than $200,000 if one values a degree. What if the athlete has no intention of obtaining a degree and does not understand what an education means? The high level athlete has learned that recruiting is similar to negotiating as a free agent. He is represented usually by a loosely defined Talent Scout and looking at who has the most money?  If the athlete cares less about education and looks at million dollar contracts, where will he turn when his dreams turn to cruel reality before his eligibility expires? Maybe to rigging a game or two.

And, the schools really don’t make a profit from athletics. In any one year about 10% of the 325 Division One institutions that sponsor commercialized football and basketball end up in the black financially. At least 50% end up in the red as they are competing in sum-zero games. The same to eight or ten football programs who play in the BCS and the rare basketball programs that end up in the final eight are profit earners. About 10 in each sport.

7. How did your experience as a college coach inform your writing of Cheating the Spread?

Figone: I coached baseball. And, I was very knowledgeable about my players’ behaviors and technical executions on the field. If one played below his usual level, not his best, or simply looked like he was zoned out, etc., he was removed from the game and received running medicine at 3:00 a.m. around the library carrying a bat over his head. This
scenario occurred infrequently, but not for gambling reasons; maybe, the player violated a team rule. The point: In my opinion, every one of the coaches whose players worked with gamblers knew it when it was occurring. Some were even told by their players it was happening.

During the 1957-1958 season, St. John’s Joe Lapchick was told by his players two starters were doing business with a gambler. Even the sportswriters told him the two players, Billy Chrystal and Michael Parenti, had been rigging games for three years. He felt and acted powerless and was unable to coach the team during games and had a player make all the strategic moves. He could have informed the New York DA’s office who could have wiretapped the two players. And, possibly prevented the massive 1961 gambling scandal in basketball.

8. What was the most interesting thing that you learned while researching the

Figone: Most of the material Judy Karren, of, an excellent and very thorough   researcher, and I uncovered was not too surprising. The book allowed us to see the gambling problem from a perspective of looking at college football’s and basketball’s gambling history from the late 19th century until today. No one event defined the scandals. It was a combination of: corruption in the two sports in question, social, economic, and political factors in higher education, and gambling vulnerabilities in many individuals that could influence a final score.

In my opinion, 98% of college sport historians have not written a comprehensive accounting of the gambling problem to the delight of: illegal bookies, NCAA, boosters who gamble on the team they fund, the college establishment that earns billions, television, and attendant industries. Why?  The events surrounding the scandals are not contextualized and placed in the realm as isolated incidents (i.e. “It’s a few bad apples”). People don’t create notable historical events. People emerge from historical events as victims, a few as extraordinary leaders rising above their peers, and the events change people’s behaviors very slowly over time.

The colleges in 2013 have not solved the gambling issue. Questions that lead to solutions have not been crafted as gambling only goes away if it destroys a sport or an institution stops competing for entertainment dollars.  I’m not sure we know how to successfully stop the 150 billion plus illegal gambling problem with the present system in commercialized college sports.

Previously unknown issues about this problem: The openness of bookie operations, especially in big cities, how coaches winked their eye, ignored, and denied their players were rigging games; even as spectators spotted the funny play, and the naiveté of the NCAA and college establishment about the problem. Fixing has not stopped. It’s simply more covert and sophisticated in 2013.

Our next book: The Underground Economy in College Football and Basketball: Playing For Illegal Gambling and Hypocrisy will selectively examine the entire history of the gambling problem in college sports. We’re attempting to link widespread and specific instances of corruption in the two sports with the fixing of games.

For example, how can the FBI, Las Vegas, and other law enforcement agencies today track the large number of college games wagered?  The University of Toledo scandal involved two Detroit gamblers who bet over $400,000 on the university’s basketball games from December 2005 to January 2006. There were assisted by four football and four basketball players. The FBI uncovered the two gamblers in the course of investigating their connection to organized crime. This was a mid-level Division One basketball program that escaped the attention of the legal books and the FBI. The mid-level programs may become the next targets of fixers.

College programs play for gamblers to the tune of at least 150 billion a year. And, only 10% are profitable. Sadly, this is higher education’s legacy in 2013.

About michael

Marketing & Sales Manager since 2012