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Shaving Lather
Edited by Mark Bectel
March 27, 2006
Say it's all even, Stevin: An Ivy League economist sees evidence of frequent fixing in big-time college basketball
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March 27, 2006

Shaving Lather

Say it's all even, Stevin: An Ivy League economist sees evidence of frequent fixing in big-time college basketball

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In his first-person account of the 1994 point-shaving scandal at Arizona State (SI, Nov. 9, 1998), former Sun Devils guard Stevin (Hedake) Smith explained why it's easy for players to cover their tracks when the fix is in. Smith didn't tank games. He simply made sure his team failed to cover the point spread by letting up on defense. "Yes, I shaved points, but I didn't do it by throwing wild passes or taking horrible shots," Smith wrote. "Those are the things everybody looks for."

There may be other tip-offs the average fan doesn't see. The NCAA hasn't had a major point-shaving case since Arizona State, but Justin Wolfers, an economist at Penn's Wharton School of Business, says a new generation of Hedakes could be fixing games all over the country. Wolfers studied the results of 44,120 Division I games played between 1989 and 2005. Overall, teams that were favored by oddsmakers beat the spread 50.01% of the time.

But a startling trend emerged when a team was favored by 12 or more points. Strong favorites covered only 48.37% of the time--and just missed covering (say, winning by 11 when they were favored by 12) far more often than shorter favorites. To Wolfers the deviations, which occurred in 6% of games with large spreads, or 500 times in 16 seasons, are too statistically significant to be random. He says they're more likely due to what he calls "mutually beneficial effort manipulation"--point shaving.

Wolfers hasn't discussed his findings with college hoops officials. But they don't contradict a 2003 NCAA survey in which 1.5% of Division I players said a teammate had taken money from gamblers to play poorly. "That was a real wake-up call to our membership," says Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities. "We're taking a more proactive approach [against point shaving]."

This week members of Newman-Baker's staff, along with FBI agents, will lecture players at the men's and women's regional sites about point shaving. (In past years only Final Four teams received such visits.) The NCAA also has a representative in Las Vegas keeping an eye on sports books; the NCAA is trying to set up a system that requires books to report suspicious gambling patterns. Says Newman-Baker, "The gambling issue comes to the forefront during the tournament." If Wolfers is right, though, it's a seasonlong concern.

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