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Betting on football, basketball and baseball has become a huge nationwide business. Massive television exposure and the look-the-other-way attitude of league and club executives have helped propagate sports gambling's vast popularity. Most Americans tend to view such wagering as a naughty-but-nice diversion. Yet, from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 to the Tulane basketball fixes of last season, nothing has done more to despoil the games Americans play and watch than widespread gambling on them. As fans cheer their bets rather than their favorite teams, dark clouds of cynicism and suspicion hang over games, and the possibility of fixes is always in the air. This 32-page report on sports gambling examines several facets of the phenomenon. The first section deals with the scope and dangers of sports gambling. Other stories cover the surprising way the point spread is set in Vegas, the agonies of members of Gamblers Anonymous, the plight of the NFL quarterback trapped by his compulsion and the emotional confrontation between a former college basketball player who fixed games and an innocent teammate whom he had not seen in 25 years.
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Sports gambling in America is this big: No one knows how big it is.
All one can say for sure is that this kind of gambling—wagering on the spectator sports of football, basketball or baseball, as opposed to pari-mutuel betting on racing or jai alai—has taken a grip on American life that is more powerful and more pervasive than ever before. It has, by every reliable indication, become a gigantic industry.
What is particularly noteworthy about this is that while other forms of gambling have become more widely legalized in the U.S., sports gambling has continued to be illegal everywhere, except for the singularly eccentric state of Nevada. For the record: Betting on horse races, dog races or jai alai is, in one form or another, legal in 36 states today, four more than allowed it 10 years ago. By contrast, sports bookmaking is a criminal act in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Under federal law, it is punishable by a maximum fine of $20,000 and/or five years in prison. Nevertheless, sports gambling gets bigger every day.
Whereas horse racing once was the chief source of financial nourishment for bookmakers, now the big play comes from professional and college team sports. One Chicago bookie, who estimated his annual handle at $1 million, told SI, "It used to be that 85 percent of my customers made bets on horses. Now it's just the opposite—90 percent of their bets are on [team] sports, with football way ahead, then basketball and baseball." Why the shift? "Television," says the bookie. "Television has done wonderful things for gambling in America." Indeed, it is generally agreed that TV exposure over the past two decades has been the single biggest reason gambling on pro and college football has soared. And it is no accident, the experts say, that with college basketball games now proliferating on the tube, there has been an upsurge in wagering on that sport.
The total dollar volume of betting on team sports today can only be guessed at. A decade ago the Justice Department estimated that illegal sports gambling was a $20-to-$25-billion-a-year business. Since then the department has pulled back on prosecuting many sports-gambling cases because of the difficulty of getting convictions and stiff sentences, and it still sticks pretty much to that figure. However, Francis Mullen, a corporate security executive who was in charge of the FBI's organized-crime investigations in 1980 and 1981 and later headed the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, estimated the figure at $70 billion in 1984. Even that number may be conservative. In 1981 the National Football League made its own estimate that pro football alone was attracting $50 billion a season.
According to the President's Commission on Organized Crime, illegal sports gambling is second only to drugs as a source of income for crime syndicates. But James Bittman, Chicago district chief of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service, believes that gambling is the largest source and says that the Mob grosses $40 billion a year from it. Bittman says bookmakers in the Chicago area alone handle about $2 billion in bets annually. In the Dallas- Fort Worth area, according to district attorney Henry Wade, $10 million or more is bet on college and pro games on a single football weekend. Even a cautious observer like Eugene Martin Christiansen, coauthor of a 1985 book on gambling, The Business of Risk, who accuses the law enforcement establishment and the media of inflating such figures for their own purposes, estimates that nearly $30 billion a year is wagered illegally in the U.S. Christiansen figures the profit on such activity to be $5 billion, roughly equivalent to what the nation's largest company, Exxon Corp., earned last year.
Vic Salerno, an ex-dentist turned professional bookmaker and the president of the Nevada Association of Race and Sports Book Operators, closely monitors sports gambling countrywide, legal and illegal. He is happy to note that legal sports wagering in his state has enjoyed a staggering growth. In 1974 there were only nine legal sports-gambling books in Nevada, handling just over $4.6 million a year. Ten years later, in fiscal 1984, there were 62 legal books that handled $808 million. In fiscal 1986, says Salerno, the Nevada handle will exceed $1 billion. "And there aren't even a million people in Nevada," Salerno says. "We're such a tiny part of the whole thing. Figure it out! What do you think they're doing in Philly, L.A., San Francisco? Extrapolate it out! The government says they think it's $40, $50 billion nationally. That's completely ridiculous! I know of a small rural town of 13,000 in Wisconsin, and that town alone has three illegal bookmakers. Three!"
The conclusion has to be that no one really knows exactly how much sports gambling is going on. "Whatever it is," says Emmett Michaels, who investigated unlawful gambling for the FBI for 17 years until he went into private business last June, "it's an epidemic."