Luther Spoehr: Review of Albert J. Figone's "Cheating the Spread: Gamblers, Point Shavers, and Game Fixers in College Football and Basketball" (University of Illinois Press, 2012)

tags: Luther Spoehr, Albert J. Figone, Cheating the Spread, NCAA, cheating, college sports

Luther Spoehr, an HNN book editor, co-teaches a course on the history of intercollegiate athletics at Brown University.

“The race may not be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” the inimitable Damon Runyon observed, “but that’s the way to bet.” Unless, he might have added, the fix is in. And as Albert Figone demonstrates, the fix has been in many times in major college sports over the past seventy-five years or so. Figone’s research into “court records, newspaper articles, books, government documents, magazine articles, documents found in university archives, scholarly journals, and interviews” has produced a chronicle that is both impressive and depressing.

Figone, a professor emeritus of kinesiology and a former coach at Humboldt State University, is not a historian, and his book does not do much to place his topic in historical context, not even the changing environment of twentieth-century intercollegiate athletics. For that, you need something like Ronald Smith’s Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (2010). Nor does Figone provide much psychological or sociological insight, beyond pointing to simple human greed, to explain why the cheaters cheated. Anyone wanting more detailed study into the most memorable cases -- the City College of New York (CCNY) scandal of 1951, for instance, or the 1978-79 Boston College fixes -- will have to look elsewhere, to books by Charley Rosen, Murray Sperber, David Porter, and others. But as a compilation of incidents that collectively map the trajectory of intercollegiate corruption, Figone’s book is quite valuable.

Early in the twentieth century, college sports were awash in gambling. Gilbert Patten, writing novels about Frank Merriwell at Yale to inspire America’s youth, casually and without disapproval depicted students making and taking bets in the stands during Frank’s games. Some gamblers, however, preferred to remove the element of chance. “[C]ollege basketball was tainted by rigged games beginning in the 1930s,” Figone says. But the accelerant that fed the flame for rigging was the introduction of the point spread in the early 1940s. Before that, nobody wanted to bet on obvious mismatches. Now every game was fair game. And gamblers could seduce players by telling them that they didn’t have to lose, just not beat the spread. Of course, once they did that, players were on the hook, and dumping games outright became part of the scene.

The 1951 CCNY basketball team, still the only team to win the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and the NCAA tournament in the same year, made the biggest national headlines and saw its players’ reputations destroyed. But the groundwork for scandal had been set in place long before, particularly by coaches and athletics officials who looked the other way for as long as they could. When, during the 1944-45 season, a CCNY player told coach Nat Holman that another player had offered him a bribe, Holman’s responded by telling his superior (the chair of the Department of Hygiene) and dropping the briber from the team. The coach and the administrator agreed to keep the incident secret. When the 1951 scandal exploded, Holman claimed to be shocked, shocked that such a thing could happen.

The CCNY case was just the tip of the cheating iceberg. Long Island University, New York University, and others were shown to be involved, too. Nor was the problem confined to the stereotypically corrupt big city. University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp proclaimed that “gamblers could not touch our boys with a ten-foot pole.” But he knew better, Figone says: “five blocks from the University of Kentucky’s new field house [was] the nation’s biggest college football bookie operation, run by Ed Curd, a major football handicapper and bettor who regularly traveled with the university’s basketball team.” Curd was a friend of Rupp’s -- and a bookie for mobster Frank Costello. Kentucky players were found to be on the take, and the university earned the 1950s equivalent of NCAA’s “death penalty,” as they had to cancel their entire 1952-1953 season.

Remarkably, in 1951 Kentucky had no law against amateur sports bribery. But New York did; players and fixers went to jail, while coaches, including Holman, got religion and made public statements of concern. Most of them agreed with LIU’s Clair Bee, who said, “The present mess is one of individuals and not the result of policy.” New York Judge Saul Streit was not impressed: “The naiveté, the equivocation and the denials of the coaches and their assistants concerning their knowledge of gambling, recruiting, and subsidizing would be comical were they not so despicable.” 

The public’s verdict seemed to be that the show must go on. Fixing and rigging returned to the shadows, only to pop into the headlines again in 1961, when former Columbia University star Jack Molinas was shown to be the ringleader of a far-flung fixing operation involving mobsters and players. Figone doesn’t provide the vivid detail that Charley Rosen’s The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball (2001) does, but he gets the job done. 

The beat went on through the Boston College basketball scandal of 1978-79, when the scene shifted to student gambling on campus. The Tulane scandal of 1981 “revealed an alarming trend in which students and athletes were gambling in association with bookies on college campuses.” Players with gambling debts became prime targets for fixers. “The Northwestern players [implicated in 1995] largely used the money to pay of gambling debts to the same people who paid them to fix games.”

By then the law supposedly had more teeth. In 1964 Congress had passed the Sports Bribery Act; in 1992, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. “Not until 1998 did the NCAA appoint a full-time person to direct enforcement of gambling and agent infractions,” but since then, seeking to protect its major money-maker, the NCAA has tried to crack down. In 2000 it declared, “Any athlete who wagers on his or her own institution or his or her own team is permanently ineligible without the option of appealing.” Still, some athletes cross the line. A 2004 NCAA poll indicated that 35 percent of male athletes and 10 percent of female athletes had gambled in the previous year. “Among the twenty-one thousand athletes surveyed, 1.1 percent (231) of the football players reported taking money for playing poorly; 2.3 percent (481) had been asked to influence the game’s outcome because of their gambling debts, and 1.4 percent (294) admitted altering their performance to change the game’s final score.” Today, Figone says, “the universe of potentially rigged games has grown.” In 2011,  the University of San Diego and the University of California at Riverside both had fixing scandals.  Gambling, bribery, and fixing games are part of an unsavory campus netherworld that frequently includes alcohol and drug rings. 

Cheating the Spread is not eloquent. It has too many paragraphs listing specific charges levied against various miscreants and the sentences they received, and it sometimes descends into Cop-Speak, emitting phrases like “surveilling certain individuals.” Nor does it claim to provide solutions. But it shows definitively that bribery and fixing are not episodic but chronic problems. And it gives real weight to Figone’s heaviest conclusion: “The question ... is not whether another gambling scandal will hit college football or basketball, but rather when.”

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