Everybody knows people gamble on college sports, but few have collected evidence of that phenomenon as energetically as has Albert Figone. He’s written a book titled Cheating the Spread: Gamblers, Point Shavers, and Game Fixers in College Football and Basketball, and his research has led him to a conclusion that will not delight college presidents.
“As long as a game is on the board, the gambling board — somewhere — the game can be fixed,” Figone said.
Albert Figone has collected chronicles of fixes, point-shaving scandals, and various other sketchy endeavors occurring at schools large and small, most of them over the past 70 years. Some fixes, like the ones at Arizona State and the University of Georgia during the ‘90s, were masterminded by student bookmakers. Others, such as the Boston College basketball scandals of the late ‘70s, have seen players working with professional gamblers. And some grand embarrassments, such as the scandals that brought the University of Michigan, Southern Methodist, and Miami into the headlines, have involved the generous fellows who bankroll some of the nation’s most accomplished teams, the boosters:
“If you’re a booster in sports, football or basketball, you’re in control of the program and the university kind of sits back and kind of watches the boosters as they control what’s going on,” Figone said. “And there’s evidence of that in many places.”
As the business of college sports has grown bigger, more competitive, and more expensive to maintain, the likelihood that any program will rid itself of wealthy boosters, such as a particular hedge fund manager allegedly worth one point four billion dollars, has declined…at least according to Albert Figone:
“It’s like telling Boone Pickens, ‘Stay away from Oklahoma State’…after giving $150 million for athletics,” Figone said. “That isn’t going to happen.”
Figone doesn’t imply that every booster is a gambler, though he does point out that wealthy contributors are likely to know a lot more about the teams they support than the average reader of the sports page. He reports in Cheating the Spread that despite the highly publicized point-shaving and game-fixing scandals from Kentucky to Manhattan and Boston to San Diego, the NCAA did not create an office to deal specifically with gambling until 1998. When we spoke recently, I asked Figone how that could be. He referenced Walter Byers, the Executive Director of the NCAA from 1951 until 1988.
“He felt that the institutions are helpless in the face of this gambling corruption or fixing of games,” Figone said. “That’s a very unusual statement from the head of the NCAA for that many years.
Toward the end of Cheating the Spread, Figone cites a recent poll in ESPN The Magazine suggesting that one in four college basketball players would consider shaving points in a game if his team was virtually certain to win it. While he was researching his book, Figone himself brought up that subject to a player at Humboldt State University:
“He thought about it,” Figone recalled. “He was a very good student and a very good player, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’d do it.’ Both coaches who were there almost went through the ceiling. Who got harmed? I made some money, my backers, the gamblers, made some money. Who got harmed? Just the bookie.”
Something to consider, perhaps, in case you’re tempted to risk a potato or two as the college basketball season – and the betting it inspires – heat up.