In the notorious Black Sox case, members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of taking bribes to lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Eight players were banned from the game for life.
The Black Sox case might be the best known, but a number of gambling scandals have shaken American sports periodically over the years, including some that have hit close to home, like the basketball scandal at Boston College in the late 1970s and the football scandal there in the mid-1990s.
So what will happen now that the Supreme Court has legalized sports gambling in the United States? Will athletes still, from time to time, be tempted to tamper with the outcome of games?
Experts say the specter of such shenanigans will diminish, but not disappear.
“On the one hand, pushing the market for sports gambling into the public domain seems to eradicate black markets and move it away from a system of corruption,” said Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College Zicklin School of Business in New York who consults extensively on sports and gaming law. “On the other hand, more people are likely to participate, and as a marketplace grows in size, it becomes more likely there will be a scandal.”
Edelman said he thought one area where there might be more risk was the NCAA, where players are unpaid and forbidden from selling their names, images, or likenesses in the endorsement market.
Noting that the minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player is $450,000, he said, “Even for someone that might have an incentive to engage in wrong behavior, the potential loss of a salary of that magnitude is likely to deter such behavior.”
On the other hand, he said, most big-time college football and basketball players “live below the poverty line, creating an inducement for them to engage in behavior with gamblers.”
B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University, said, “I think it would be naive to think we could get rid of scandals.”
At the same time, he said, “I do think any time something is brought out into the sunshine . . . it’s easier to keep track of.”
Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University, said oversight of the industry could help.
“With mechanisms in place, it could reduce the risk of corruption and match-fixing. It depends on how it’s done,” he said. “It depends on the gambling laws that will be enacted and the integrity provisions in those laws to help ensure that this doesn’t happen.”
States will “have to have a system to track the integrity of the betting. If they see trends that can point to potential fixing, such as huge bets for one side over the other, there has to be a way to target that and report that,” he said.
How can the betting be tracked? One example of a monitoring system is the NBA’s contract with Sportradar AG, a large European-based gambling services company that watches more than 550 international sportsbooks for unusual betting, according to ESPN.
In testimony to the New York Legislature earlier this year, the NBA called for any sports gambling legislation to “enable the detection and prevention of improper conduct relating to sports betting.”
“Among other things, this would include mandatory alerts by gaming operators of unusual betting activity; centralization of betting data to facilitate monitoring of bets across operators and jurisdictions; eligibility requirements to prevent insiders from placing bets on their sports; and enhanced criminal prohibitions to prevent betting-related corruption.”
“If you monitor odds and you monitor action . . . you kind of tend to know when things are changing in a direction they shouldn’t,” and a state could remove a game from betting if it has its suspicions, Ridpath said.
He said that was a practice already in use in Las Vegas. Nevada is the only state where sports betting has been legal.
“Vegas has pretty good monitoring and pretty good ethical standards,” he said. “I think that Nevada would be a great template.”
In the end, Edelman said, keeping their sports clean is in the self-interest of the major sports leagues.
They’ve built huge businesses “based on the notion of outcome uncertainty,” he said.
“Fans believe that games are not predetermined,” he said. “They believe that, on any given day, there’s a reasonable chance their team will win.”
“If games were predetermined, it would become like WWE wrestling or certain Harlem Globetrotters contests. If they lose outcome uncertainty, they lose one of the primary reasons their fan base attends,” he said.