Sports, wagering: for bettor or worse

Gambling, games have long history



Blow the whistle or swallow it. Call 'em close or let 'em play. Charge or block.

No matter what NBA referees do, as a new pro basketball season begins, the suspicions and the jeers will be as inevitable as a LeBron James Nike commercial.

The Tim Donaghy scandal still hangs over the NBA. The disgraced ref, who has admitted to providing information to gambling associates during the two most recent seasons, has yet to be sentenced. And more details about the corruption might come to light as the federal government pursues more prosecutions.

Regardless of what happens with Donaghy, though, this much you can bet on. It will not be the last time there will be ugliness involving betting and big-time sports. And the reason is simple. Sports and gambling have been entwined in a symbiotic, if occasionally destructive, relationship almost as long as the two have existed.

Gambling's corrupting influence on American team sports was most infamously spotlighted in 1919, when some Chicago White Sox players threw the World Series. But until the Black Sox scandal, it was gambling that helped fuel the emerging sport's popularity. Sports and gambling exist in a dangerous dichotomy. Fans certainly don't want their games rigged because of gambling, but, at the same time, they are eager to lay down a few bucks to heighten the competitive experience. In the process, pro sports have become unimaginably profitable.

"Gambling has always had a huge influence on sports," said David G. Schwartz, a gambling historian at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who recently published Roll the Bones, an encyclopedic chronicling of gambling from prehistoric times to the present. "The rise of our first hugely popular team sport, baseball, in the late 19th century was largely due to gambling."

Since then, sports wagering has become big business. The financial figures are impressive, if a bit elusive.

In Nevada, the only jurisdiction in the United States with widespread legal sports wagering, the amount bet on athletic events during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2007, was $2.48 billion. That produced $175.64 million in revenue for casinos. But that's only a fraction of a much broader sports gambling picture.

The real wagering on sports happens either through illegal street bookmakers or, increasingly, over the Internet - although recent federal regulations have stemmed the rising tide of online gambling.

Estimates on illegal sports betting vary. The most quoted figures come from a 1999 report produced by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, a panel of experts who examined all types of gambling. That report estimated that illegal sports wagering ranged from $80 billion to $380 billion. The estimated revenues on those handles would roughly be $3.7 billion to $17.5 billion, or roughly 20 to 100 times the cash generated by Nevada's legal sports books.

More recently, the Internet has increasingly provided a convenient platform for sports gambling and presumably has led to an increase in wagering.

Corrupting factor

Not everyone, though, accepts the notion that the association between gambling and sports is inevitable.

"Any sports should be mutually exclusive from gambling," said John W. Kindt, a professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois who has written widely on gambling. "Whenever you mix any type of gambling with sports, what you have left is not a true sport, because the pressures to fix or influence the event are enormous. Once you've corrupted the sport, you might as well not have it at all, because then it's all about how much money can you get out of it."

The fact of the matter, though, is that there has hardly been a time when athletic competition was so pristine that it was conducted devoid of gambling interests.

In his book on gambling history, Schwartz details how the ancient Greeks bet on events that were the precursors of the Olympic Games when they were first held at Olympus, Delphi and Corinth. But until nearly the 20th century, sports wagering almost always involved animals, races primarily. In a harbinger of the ugly business that suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick financed and supported, animal blood sports, bear and bull bating, were also popular in Elizabethan England.

In early America, sports gambling centered on the two most popular pre-20th century sports, boxing and horse racing. Then, baseball began its ascent as the national pastime on the strength of its betting popularity, and the creation of the point spread led to a gambling infatuation with football.

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