Sports Fixing: When Gambling And The Game Collide

Feb 12, 2013
Originally published on February 12, 2013 11:30 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. If you walk into any clubhouse in organized baseball, from Yankee Stadium to a rookie-league park, you'll see a large poster that specifies the prohibitions against gambling, and they'll specify the penalty. There is only one: a lifetime ban.

The emphasis, of course, stems from the scars from 1919, when mobster Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series. We've had a few other sports gambling scandals in this country; point-shaving in college basketball, baseball's Pete Rose, an NBA referee a couple of years ago.

But last week we learned that either we're isolated from a global culture of sports corruption, or maybe we're just naive. Last week the police department of the European Union, Europol, issued a jaw-dropping report on fixed matches in the world's most popular sport, soccer; hundreds of suspect matches, bribes to players and referees, corrupt team owners who instruct their clubs to lose, organized crime syndicates and billions of billions of dollars.

If you're an athlete, call and tell us how gambling affects your sport. Give us a call, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we wrap up our series on the films nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature with a history of Act Up, "How to Survive a Plague." But first, sports betting and corruption. We begin with NPR's Mike Pesca, who joins us from our bureau in New York. Mike, always good to have you on the program.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And this latest scandal, I think it's the scale that surprises more than anything else.

PESCA: Right, and scandals, I would say, 680 soccer, football, let's call it soccer from now on, matches accused of being fixed throughout the world, matches that were part of qualifiers for the World Cup - they're not World Cup championship matches - matches that were part of the Champions League, you know, big-time national teams playing friendlies.

You know, people have been following this for a long time. Some of them said, well, this isn't really new. And there was an interesting thing about that Europol press conference. In a way, it was sort of a summary of many different investigations, but it still provided a useful purpose, which is to give it legitimacy, to confirm that many of these 680 cases were indeed under investigation and to really push it to the forefront because if it was just being, you know, documented ably by soccer writers or writers in Singapore or writers in Europe, maybe it wouldn't, you know, come to the fore in the way that it's now really creating an international conversation.

CONAN: An international conversation, and again, a lot of people in this country may say, well, football, soccer - 90 percent, we read, 90 percent of the gambling in the world on sports is on soccer.

PESCA: Well, it's such a popular sport, of course, and I'm a little hesitant to endorse all the numbers that fly around because they raise some red flags. For instance, I have read that a trillion dollars worldwide is bet on sports. It's a little bit too round to figure when you do the math.

I mean, since a great majority of people don't have a lot of disposal income to bet, I wonder how it gets to a trillion. But yeah, soccer is unbelievably popular. Betting on soccer is of course a part of human nature, and it turns out that fixing soccer games is going to come along as part of that.

CONAN: And this has been aided and abetted by the Internet.

PESCA: Well, sure, because the way we have to bet, I mean, it started from people on the corner and people in neighborhoods, and there is legalized better shops on corners in England and other European countries. But yes, Internet gambling allows anyone, anywhere to place a bet.

And it also allows the gamblers to sort of move around money because one of the aspects of gambling - see in the United States, legal gambling on sports can only occur in Las Vegas. And as a result, the bookies in Las Vegas are able to see when a lot of money strangely has been put on one team. And they actually work with organizations like the NCAA to alert them, hey, there might be something weird going on in this, say, Arizona State game, to pick an example of something that really happened.

So if you have legal betting endorsed by governments and aboveground, it's actually easier to catch. But the Internet, because so much of it is so unregulated, doesn't offer that sort of backstop against match fixing.

CONAN: And the Vegas sports books are big, we think of them as big, and they are in American terms, but they're dwarfed by what goes on in Asia.

PESCA: Yeah, and they're dwarfed by even the English sports books and books like, you know, William Hill and the Asian sports books. Of course it's - you know, gambling in Asia is sometimes said is like the second or third national pastime. And since soccer is so popular everywhere, there's going to be inevitably a lot of betting on soccer.

But, you know, there's a lot of betting on everything. There's a lot of betting on tennis, and in fact there's been tennis match-fixing scandals. So there's very few sports, I would say, that are beyond the reach of the match fixer.

CONAN: And we want to hear from people who are involved in athletics and how gambling affects their support, but there have been relatively few sports gambling controversies, scandals in this country. I guess the college point-shaving scandals, the most recent, the NBA referee who was working with some gamblers just a few years ago. But relatively few.

Is that because, well, we're somewhat blessed by the fact that not a lot of people around the world care about baseball or American football, or is it that we're being naive and that maybe things are going on that we don't know about?

PESCA: Well, every gambler who's lost a bet will probably say we're being naive. But I think the number one thing that happened, especially for professional sports, is that athletes' salaries just got so big. So a gambler can't really bribe an athlete sufficiently if a guy is getting paid, you know, $5 million. The modern-day Arnold Rothstein, who is the fellow who fixed the 1919 World Series, won't have an in with the players themselves.

And if you look at these soccer scandals, you know, they actually weren't bribing a lot of the players. That's not the preferred way to fix a soccer match. It's to go after the referees. It's because the referees - the big thing is that the referees are more susceptible to bribes because they're not paid. But also, referees hold great sway soccer, and you award one or two different hand balls in the box, and that, you know, changes an entire game.

But I will say that if you want to talk about a big-time sport in America where - that might be susceptible to gambling, where the players aren't paid, let's look at the NCAA. And, you know, it just came out that the University of Toledo was involved in point-shaving, and that actually hasn't gotten a lot of attention. But it could be the case that a number of college games are fixed, or have the potential to be fixed, because a lot of these college players don't have any money for playing a sport where millions of dollars are gambled on it.

CONAN: And just for those who are not in on it, you can see in any newspaper, or on lots of websites, that the University of Tulsa - for picking a name - is favored by nine and a half points over Ed Jones University in the basketball game tonight. In other words, if they win by 10, and you bet on them to win, you win. If they win by just eight, then the other proposition wins, the other team wins.

And therefore if you're point-shaving, you're saying we don't want you to lose the game, just don't win by more than nine.

PESCA: Right, that's a way for a gambler to approach the athlete, and maybe the athlete can, you know, convince himself that he's not doing something so unethical. But, you know, of course he is. Of course it's illegal, and you could lose everything if you engage in that sort of thing.

But I will say the big thing, I do think, to stop this - and maybe I'm being a little naive, but - and there have been instances of point-shaving. But the fact that so much of it can be detected by the Las Vegas sports books and that they are literally working with the NCAA, that seems to be a very effective way to - that seems to be a very effective way to prevent gambling although there are some economists, and not investigators, not people with wiretaps but just economists who look at point spreads and have concluded that a great number of games, a surprising number of games, seem to be if not fixed, something strange is going on in terms of where the final score is falling in relation to the point spread.

It can't be proved, but there's some good research being done on this.

CONAN: And similarly, these are suspicious games that they're talking about, Europol, these soccer games that were supposedly fixed. There are some that really do look fishy. The referees reportedly were bribed in a game where somebody was betting on the total number of goals, and seven penalties kicks were awarded.

PESCA: Yeah, and remember, a lot of these bets aren't just who wins. There's not only the point spread bet, but you could bet on the total number, you could bet that teams won't end in a tie. And so, if you're bribing an official, and all the official needs is to have a high scoring game, call a lot of penalties in the box, you know, send a lot of the best players off.

And I just want to say another thing about the suspicious word. It has - a lot of the good journalists who have been reporting on this, and I specifically cite Declan Hill who writes for the Ottawa Citizen and wrote a book called "The Fix," you know, he is - he points out that the reason they're using words like suspicious is if you way - if the investigating agency said flat out, this was a fix, well, they'd have to do something about it.

They'd have to arrest someone or serve a warrant, and there's been, sometimes with the agencies, sometimes with the countries involved, a little bit of hesitancy, according to some journalists who have been following the story, like Declan Hill, hesitancy to really go after the people who are involved in the fixing.

And he specifically talks about a Singapore businessman/gambling magnate named Dan Tan, who so far has not been served with an international subpoena, even though he's been indicted in places like Hungary and Italy.

CONAN: And Singapore, therefore, has not been asked to extradite him.

PESCA: Yes.

CONAN: There are also, you know, the United States is a big entity, it's its own place. You can have things like that lifetime ban in baseball, and salaries are very high, so it's not worth the risk.

PESCA: Yeah, and, you know, it's funny. If you look at the history of matches that are fixed, what keeps popping up is that the guys doing the fixing often lose because - like even if you think about the 1919 World Series, and I know you're a student of baseball, Arnold Rothstein made off on the series because he backed the Cincinnati Reds, not the Chicago White Sox, who were on the take.

But some of the gamblers in cahoots with Rothstein lost their shirts because at different times, athletes, being human beings, feel guilt or just say I just want to win this and don't quite come through. Plus there's also chance. And so there's examples of games that were fixed where you don't bribe every player on one side, and, you know, one guy will get the ball and go on a breakaway and do what all the players who are on the take don't want him to do, you know, score a goal.

So that's - and in fact one of the instances that happened, and one of the conspirators with this guy Dan Tan, a guy named Wilson Raj Perumal kind of blew the whistle because he lost a lot of money on a match that he thought was fixed.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's Mike Pesca about the report from Europol that was released last week, which showed hundreds of soccer matches that were suspicious, looked to be fixed over the past five years. We'd like to hear from those of you involved in athletics. How does gambling affect your game? Of course it's not just soccer, it's volleyball, it's tennis, it's, well, boxing, it's lots of things. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Sports betting is illegal in the United States and has been since 1992, except in four states. Nevada is far and away the most active of those. Now New Jersey sees an opportunity in sports gambling and two years ago amended the state constitution to allow it.

The state legislature followed up with a law that would allow betting on sports games. The problem: unless a court declares the 1992 unconstitutional, it violates federal law. The major professional and college sports leagues all sued to prevent New Jersey's law from taking effect. They fear it would destroy the integrity of the game. Last month, the federal government asked to join the suit, an effort to defend the 1992 law that bans sports betting, except in Las Vegas.

We're talking about the latest match-fixing scandal to shake professional soccer overseas, how big sports betting has become and how it affects the sports we play, watch and bet on. Mike Pesca covers sports for NPR. He joins us from our bureau in New York.

If you're an athlete, call, tell us how gambling affects your sport. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's get Brendan(ph) on the phone, Brendan with us from Trinity Center in California.

BRENDAN: Oh, hi.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

BRENDAN: Hi, I'm not really a soccer fan, I'm - I actually just have been listening to your conversation, and what occurs to me is it reminds me of the last Super Bowl. A lot of people I know that have watched the game thought that it was quite a miraculous comeback that was precipitated after the power loss. And it just kind of screamed as being very questionable to me and very coincidental that the final score was so close.

You talked about the spread earlier, and it was speculated amongst the people watching the game with me at the time that maybe this was Las Vegas bookies that wanted the score to be closer and had the power cut. So maybe they can't bribe the players, but you can bribe somebody to cut the power.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, as I recall, the 49ers were favored in that game, and so they did not cover the spread, even though they rallied to come back.

PESCA: Right, and I did - during that game I did run down to the engineering room, and there was quite a bit of commotion, and I interviewed some of the people who were inside that room. I got no inkling that the power was actually cut. But this is what always happens when something odd happens. You know, the mind, especially people who bet on the game, jumps to, well, what if, you know, something nefarious happened.

I will say this: Las Vegas for the most part what they really want is not so much a specific outcome, although they do - especially if their books are unbalanced - but they want to get an equal amount of money on both sides. So Las Vegas wanting specific outcomes is less likely than Las Vegas being very happy going into a game seeing that the action is 50-50 on each side, and they'll just get a percentage of the middle.

CONAN: Joining us now is Sylvia Schenk, senior advisor on sport at Transparency International, an organization dedicated to fighting corruption around the world. She joins us on the line from her home in Frankfurt in Germany. Good of you to be with us.

SYLVIA SCHENK: Hello.

CONAN: This problem of match-fixing has been building for years. Has anything worked to stop it?

SCHENK: Well, we are still analyzing what is the situation and what would be the best to do about it. We have started in Germany, and now we are spreading it for Europe to work on prevention because it's very important to tell the players, young players but even the professional players, how to tackle match-fixing, how to be aware, how that could be approached and things like that.

CONAN: And they don't know that already?

SCHENK: No, no, most of them, of the players and even of the supporting person and of the coaches, of the officials of the clubs and leagues, they up to now still think, oh, it's only a small problem, maybe there's one, two persons doing it in all Europe. But the problem is much bigger. So we have to raise the awareness of how big the problem is and that everybody can be concerned and so how they can protect themselves or their players and so on.

CONAN: That's the prevention side, and I understand you're not the czar of football in Germany or anywhere else, but is there a punishment side, as well? If you're convicted of being involved with gambling, are you banned for life?

SCHENK: Yes, of course. There are convictions, for example regarding the criminal side of it. We have already had a referee, for example, in Germany. He went into prison for nearly two years. And one match-fixer from the outside, a criminal, not being a sports person but trying to fix a match from the outside, and he was in jail, as well.

So of course there is conviction, as well, and a ban for life, or for several years for persons from the sports side. But that's only part of the fight against match-fixing because prevention is very important, as well.

CONAN: Were you surprised by Europol's findings, particularly the naming of suspicious matches at such a high level?

SCHENK: Well, I know I wasn't surprised because most of the cases they named were already known. It was just an overview of cases already being in the public. Some cases were new but not so much. What I knew beforehand from some contacts I have with Europol is that they were, well, a little bit frustrated about the politics in some parts of Europe not really dealing with the problem, not being prepared to give the resources to investigate or to really work on the issue of match-fixing.

There was one side, the political side, the investigation side, and the other point is that the European Football Association, UEFA, still is not really aware of the size of the problem and is not taking it in the right way.

CONAN: We read of club owners, some gamblers themselves, who will go into the locker room and instruct their team to go out and lose that day.

SCHENK: Well, things like that have happened in the past. We know about it. For example, in some especially Eastern countries, some clubs have not enough money to pay their players. So if the players are waiting for their wages for several months, then they have - they want to get some money to feed their family.

And then sometimes it has happened in the past that, for example, even the club president said, OK, tomorrow you are going to lose, and I will place a bet on it, and somebody else is going to place a bet on it, and then we will be able to pay your wages. So to pay the players, to give them the wages that one owes to them, that's very important to, well, to tackle match-fixing.

CONAN: And if - you've talked about prevention and educating players and referees and club officials about the dangers of this. The sport itself is at risk, is it not?

SCHENK: Pardon?

CONAN: Isn't the sport itself at risk, as baseball was in this country during the - after the fixing scandal of the World Series back in 1919?

SCHENK: Well, yes, the sport is at risk, and that's why it is so important that all people being involved in the sport, be it the players, the officials, the referees, the coaches, they have to know about the risk, they have to know about what behavior is expected regarding themselves and how to react if they are in a difficult situation.

CONAN: What's the next step?

SCHENK: Well, we are just starting to spread the project we have started in Germany now for other European countries. The European Union is supporting several projects within the European Union to tackle match-fixing, to work on education because you have the criminals from the outside, sometimes organized crime, for example, from China, from Asian countries but, as well from Eastern European countries. But no match can be manipulated without the players, without the referee. So the sport has to work on the prevention side.

CONAN: Sylvia Schenk, thank you very much for your time today.

SCHENK: Thank you, bye.

CONAN: Sylvia Schenk, senior advisor for sports for Transparency International, with us by phone from her home in Frankfurt. And Mike Pesca, we read that in fact European games, and there are hundreds of European games that are named among these 639 that are suspicious by Europol, the reason they're so popular with Asian betters is that Asian betters are fearful that the games over there, in Asia, are fixed.

PESCA: Right, and it just seems to me, as you mention Asia, and you mention Europe, this is one of the problems. There we just heard from an investigator based in Germany. You know, you have a Singapore national fixing games in a Scandinavian country with betters from other Asian countries using servers based in Jakarta. I mean, what an intricate web.

And it seems like at any level, there is going to be a jurisdiction problem. The other thing I would say is, yeah, I guess you could convince these players who aren't being paid or referees not to fix a game out of the better angels of their nature. I think it's probably been demonstrated to be true that the threat of actually being caught and punished would be much more formidable, and it would seem to me that until you really go after the people at the top, how are you ever going to have the credible threat of being caught or punished? Although if we're using the Black Sox scandal, they never did get Arnold Rothstein, did they? They just put the fear of God into all the players.

CONAN: Well, somebody got Arnold Rothstein, but it wasn't for that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: 800-989-8255. If you're involved in athletics, how does gambling affect your game? Jeff(ph) is on the line with us from Des Moines.

JEFF: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JEFF: I was just calling to go on a lot lower scale, but the intramural sports in - at the Division I school - I won't say which one, but at the Division I school I went to were even somewhat rigged.

CONAN: Really? Club sports?

JEFF: Well, it was intramural, so it's even, you know, just kind of for fun, but all the fraternities had kind of a betting system going on in between them. And I was a Division I swimmer, and I didn't swim after my freshman year. And so I competed on the intramurals sophomore year, and there was a lot of betting taking place on who they thought would win, and they didn't know I was going to be swimming in it.

CONAN: Interesting. And what were the stakes involved? Can you tell us?

JEFF: It wasn't ridiculously high level, but there was definitely money being put around between the different fraternities betting on different things, and swimming was just one of the few ones, and there was only one meet a year for swimming.

PESCA: So you were a ringer.

JEFF: Pretty much, I guess, would be the right word.

CONAN: Thanks very much, and appreciate that. It reminds us. I think it was one of the sports college point shaving scandals where the fixers were fraternities.

PESCA: Yeah. And I don't know - well, fraternities have - I think it was - I know that with the Arizona State scandal, there was fraternity involvement, and fraternities have a way to have relations with players, see. Gamblers, adults who are on the outside need a way in.

And sometimes because gambling on college campuses is so huge and it goes through fraternities, perhaps a member of the fraternity could know an adult gambler. He gets into hock with the guy who's, you know, maybe got some mob connections. Hey, don't you know the point guard on the team? Maybe you could set up a conversation, and I'll relieve some of your debt. So that sort of thing goes on all the time.

The NCAA is really concerned with gambling and gambling awareness not just among its student athletes, as they call it, but among all students on college campuses. And with the Internet, it's a really big thing and a really big problem. A lot of young men, mostly, on college campuses are gambling a lot.

CONAN: And the fact is the technology today allows you to make bets during the game, not just, you know, on the first half. After the first half, you can bet on the second half.

PESCA: Right, and that's another thing. I mean, there have been instances where it would seem that logic would dictate that fewer goals would be scored, say, in - halfway through the second half, and you start to see this tremendous amount of action pouring in on more goals being scored. So that sort of thing could raise red flags if you're working with the companies that offer what's called in-game wagering.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Adam(ph), Adam on the line with us from Hampton in Iowa.

ANTONI: Oh, that's Antoni(ph), like Anthony without the Y. I am a former collegiate wrestler, and I have actually a question and a comment. First off, from a comment standpoint, I would guess that the susceptibility of somebody in a sport like tennis, like wrestling would overcome anybody wanting to fix a match's outcome by, you know, decreasing the quantity of people they would have to get to.

For instance, in baseball, basketball or football, you know, you're dealing with a whole team to rig a game, whereas in tennis, golf, wrestling, boxing, it would still be a lot easier for somebody to rig a game because they have to touch one individual.

PESCA: Right. That's true. The individual sports are easier to rig. Boxing is easiest to rig if you go through an athlete. There's just not a lot of betting on collegiate wrestling, say, but tennis, that's - you're absolutely right. There is a lot of betting on tennis. It is based on individuals. And some of them are willing to lose because they're not paid that much if you talk about, you know, the hundredth-ranked tennis player in the world.

ANTONI: Sure. Now the second question that I have for you is there - Dr. Steven Levitt, an economics - an economist from Chicago wrote a book called "Freakonomics." And in that book, he talked about the rigging of sumo wrestling in Japan, which, like soccer in Europe and Asia, is a highly regarded and bet-upon sport.

Now, has it been debated on this international level to use some of the economic measures that Dr. Levitt did in order to prove or disprove betting in a specific sport?

CONAN: Proving it to one's reasonable satisfaction in the outside world to an economist is one thing. Proving it in court, well, that's something else.

PESCA: Yeah. But like I mentioned, there are economists who are doing this, and they looked at - Justin Wolfers looked at - who's a UPenn economist, looked at suspected point shaving schemes on the NCAA level. And when he released his findings, which all economists looked at and said, wow, this is really good and something to look at, the NCAA said, you know, this is nonsense. This doesn't prove anything. They kind of dismissed them.

CONAN: Adam, thanks very much for the call. Let's go one more caller. This is Alvin(ph), and Alvin's with us from Sacramento.

ALVIN: Hello. Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.

ALVIN: I'm sorry. I missed the beginning of the show, so I don't know if you've addressed the question of whether or not the major league sports where there's tremendous amount of money involved for the players and the coaches are immune to this - to the betting scandals, immune to being - fixing the games.

I - my contention is that they are not, that - excuse me, that they are immune because there's so much money. It's too much of a risk for them to damage their huge incomes by fixing a game. The officials would not be immune because they just don't get paid enough, and so they are vulnerable. And professional sports ought to pay their officials better. It's an important job, and it's just underappreciated.

CONAN: Are you a replacement official?

ALVIN: No, I'm not. I'm a sports better.

CONAN: And you're convinced that everything's on the up-and-up because it's, well, it's just too...

ALVIN: I'm convinced that in the NBA, in the NFL and in Major League Baseball, it's on the up-and-up. The other sports - horse racing, and so forth, I'm convinced that horse racing is corrupt to some degree.

CONAN: I think you're probably right to some degree, but thank you very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And, Mike, you mentioned those points earlier yet some of those leagues in which games were fixed, in soccer, you'd think those guys are paid pretty well too.

PESCA: Yeah. And this is why they go after the referees. But yeah, sometimes they're paid well, sometimes there's a situation between, say, a friendly between two international clubs and one is - one has a big name and maybe dozens or the other, you would think had a big name but their players are somehow susceptible to being bribed and of course, who knows who the officials are in a lot of these international friendlies.

CONAN: Mike Pesca, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

PESCA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Mike Pesca is sports correspondent for NPR News. He joined us today from our bureau in New York. Coming up, we're going to be wrapping up our series on the featured documentaries nominated for the Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. We're going to be talking about a film that documents the history of the AIDS activist group ACT UP. It's a film called "How To Survive A Plague." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.