Cheating for more than just NCAA basketball recruits

It would be easy to call a significant part of the NCAA basketball landscape a cesspool of cheating, money, and other sins. Indeed, an oft-alleged mariner on those dark waters was told to hit the showers just this morning and takes with him a towering, and entwined, reputation for coaching defense and practicing cartoonishly unethical behavior.

But that job dismissal is just an early rockslide in the avalanche of scandal sure to result from the recent bombshell FBI revelations about a handful of NCAA basketball programs—and by implication, a great many more of the programs that compete with them for recruits.

figoneCollege hoops and football, alas, have attracted scandal since the days when Harvard and Yale competed for national titles. Albert J. Figone, for instance, published an entire UIP book on betting shenanigans in the NCAA’s two marquee men’s sports. You remember some of these moments: Northwestern players betting against their own team in the mid-1990s, or Tulane’s hoopsters fixing a couple of games in 1985. You may not know that men like halfback/inspirational figure George Gipp liked to put down money, and let’s just say he knew what he was doing.

One of the many revolutions in sports gambling took place with the widespread adoption of the point spread.

The point spread makes virtually any game worth betting on. Even if a powerhouse plays a patsy, the point spread—which essentially assigns the patsy a handicap, while forcing the powerhouse to not just win but win by at least X points—gives the gambler incentive to talk himself/herself into believing in a bet. It’s an incredibly powerful bit of suggestion, not that I know this personally, and foundational to sports gambling.

Where did this incredible invention come from? Even Figone cannot say for sure. But he did profile one strong candidate who came from the mean streets of academia:

Some bookies and gamblers have attributed the implementation of the point spread to Chicago mathematics teacher Charles K. McNeil, a graduate of the University of Chicago. After he retired from teaching, McNeil worked for a brief time as a security analyst, drawing a small salary. He soon turned to gambling full time, taking advantage of the city’s numerous bookmakers. McNeil recounted that he was such a successful gambler that eventually “the biggest book in town put a firm betting limit” on him. Upset by these terms, he opened his own bookmaking system in the fall of 1940, labeling his form of betting “wholesale odds.”

McNeil’s system analyzed and rated teams and then estimated the number of points by which one team would defeat the other. After the 1940 football season, he applied his system to college basketball, and his bookmaking business became so successful that he drove the bookie who had previously limited his wagering out of business. McNeil’s methods anticipated using computers to collect information on teams. Most sports gamblers today believe that it is necessary to have accurate information about many team and individual factors to ensure a winning bet, and any small edge in information supports the illusion that sports betting is profitable. As noted handicapper Lem Banker has stated, “You have a better chance of becoming a rock star than becoming a [successful] professional gambler.”

McNeil quit bookmaking in 1950 because “the mob wanted to go in[to] business with his brain.”