Betting beliefs turn against all odds

All bets are off on the official stance that professional sports now take against gambling

November 03, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez's apparent recent foray to a Manhattan poker den is hardly the first time a sports celebrity has publicly rubbed shoulders with gamblers, but he can thank changing mores for the relatively mild reaction the affair has gotten from baseball's overlords.

Rodriguez reportedly was spotted in one of New York's underground poker clubs with card pro Phil Hellmuth in September. In New York, even if such a poker room is being operated illegally, it is not illegal to play in one.

Still, when the A-Rod/Hellmuth sighting hit the New York papers last month, the Yankees front office's response reportedly was to suggest to the third baseman that he should re-examine his off-field pursuits - but there were no sanctions.

Such a stance contrasts with what happened to Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher in 1947, when he was suspended by baseball commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler for a season for conduct detrimental to the game, which included hanging out with known gamblers.

And in the late 1970s and early '80s, commissioner Bowie Kuhn barred Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from having any association with Major League Baseball because, in retirement, they simply took jobs as greeters or in public relations with Atlantic City casinos. The ban was lifted in 1985 by Kuhn's successor, Peter Ueberroth.

"You need to look at it in this perspective. In 1910, when even Nevada closed its casinos, gambling was illegal everywhere in the country except for some parts of western Maryland and Kentucky," said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada. "But you could buy cocaine, morphine and opium over the counter at a pharmacy. Now, the public attitudes on those two activities have flip-flopped.

"Where gambling was once seen as the most pernicious of vices, now it's merely a part of our entertainment offerings, part of reality TV. ... And that makes it more difficult for institutions to be blue-nosed about it."

Indeed, according to the American Gaming Association, an industry umbrella group, last year 11 states had commercial casinos, 28 had Indian casinos and seven had some type of racetrack casino. When lotteries and other forms of non-casino gambling are counted, 48 states have some form of wagering.

Such proliferation of wagering and growing public acceptance make it more difficult for institutions, such as pro sports leagues, to be absolutists in their attitudes.

"Of course, with a Pete Rose, he'll be banned for betting [on baseball] and lying about it," Eadington said. "But Michael Jordan never received serious censure, even though he admits he gambled more than he should have."

Baseball's concerns with gambling and its potentially corrupting influences go back to 1919, when the Chicago White Sox, seduced by the gambling underworld, threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. But even baseball officials concede some of those worries have been overtaken by current-day pro sports economics. Years ago, $25,000 would represent a season's salary. Athletes routinely earn more than that in a week nowadays.

But while enormous salaries help insulate today's athletes from the suggestion they can be easily bought by gambling interests, there's another side to the modern sports culture coin that works against celebrities like Rodriguez.

"There used to be a time when sportswriters protected the players," said Bethesda baseball historian Bill Mead, who has written seven books on the sport. "Hack Wilson and his teammates frequented speakeasies in Chicago and made no secret of it."

And Rogers Hornsby, Mead pointed out, was a notorious horse bettor who created money problems for himself with his wagering.

The drinking and gambling by these baseball legends, though, were hardly part of the contemporary reporting.

Today, when sports figures show up in a Las Vegas nightspot or in a casino, chances are good that they'll be a "Name in the News" in the next day's gossip columns.

However, more generous public attitudes about gambling - and in the case of Rodriguez, widespread enthusiasm for poker - are apt to work in favor of athletes who like to place the occasional wager, as long as it doesn't compromise the integrity of their sport.

"How can ESPN take a negative stance on a baseball player playing poker when they broadcast the World Series of Poker?" said David Schwartz, the director of gaming research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Lied Library.

"Years ago, when you said someone ran a gambling operation, it meant he was a criminal. Today, it means he's the CEO of a publicly-traded company."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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