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Insider betting triggers fear in leagues

The Arizona Republic


The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – The gambling ring investigation that implicated Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet raises many questions about pro and college sports wagering. Here’s a look at the basics:

Q. What are the most common sports wagers?

A. Typically, a bettor will place a wager based on the point spread set by bookmakers to account for the relative strength of teams. Some Las Vegas sports books made Pittsburgh a 4-point favorite over Seattle in Super Bowl XL, which meant bettors taking the Steelers had to “give” the Seahawks 4 points.

Other bets, known as parlays, involve picking winners in a series of games. In pro and college football, “over-under” bets are popular. In those, bettors wager on whether a game’s combined point total will be over or under a figure set by a bookmaker.

Q. Why are sports leagues so paranoid about gambling?

A. It’s not that the leagues condone other illegal activities. But for sports officials, gambling is particularly frightening because it raises questions about whether games are on the level, which is the essence of competition. If fans suspect there’s a fix, it could seriously damage a sport’s reputation. It happened to college basketball in the 1950s and to boxing and horse racing at times.

Q. Have people gone to jail?

A. In 2000, Jay Cohen, the co-owner of World Sports Exchange, an illegal Internet wagering site based on the Caribbean island of Antigua, was sentenced to 21 months in prison and fined $5,000 after a Manhattan federal jury found him guilty of operating a business that illegally accepted sports wagers from Americans over the Internet and telephones.

It’s unusual but not unheard of for athletes to go to prison in gambling scandals. Former NFL quarterback Art Schlichter, an admitted gambling addict, served time for gambling-related convictions.

Q. For athletes and coaches, is there a difference between wagering on other sports and wagering on their sport?

A. It’s a critical distinction. Those who bet on their sport have inside information on injuries and other factors that could affect the point spread. They can, in rare instances, be involved in fixing games.

Had Pete Rose limited his gambling to football, basketball or horse racing, it’s possible he would be enshrined in Cooperstown. When there was evidence that Rose bet on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds, his case took on a whole different dimension. Baseball banned him for life.

By contrast, former Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel was fired for participating in an NCAA Tournament hoops pool. He sued the university for wrongful termination and won a $4.5 million settlement.

Q: How much money is wagered on sports in the U.S.?

A: Estimates vary but are always in the billions of dollars when all wagering – legal and illegal – is taken into account.

More than $90 million reportedly was wagered legally on Super Bowl XL in Las Vegas. Last year, Vegas sports books handled an estimated $80 million on NCAA Tournament bets. Experts estimated that more than $2 billion was wagered in private pools and with offshore Internet sites.

Q: Wasn’t there a gambling scandal at Arizona State?

A: Former ASU student Benny Silman was convicted of bribing Sun Devil men’s basketball players Stevin “Hedake” Smith and Isaac Burton in 1994 to miss shots so Silman and other gamblers could win bets. Smith served a year in prison and Burton, two months.

Q: What is the worst-case scenario when it comes to athletes and gambling?

A: Heavy gamblers often run up sizable debts. An athlete in that position could be vulnerable to pressure from bookmakers, some of whom have ties to organized crime. Athletes are in a unique position to influence the outcomes of games.

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