Do Harsh Punishments Ease Gambling's Stain?

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is expected Monday to formally enter his guilty plea to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge.

On Friday, Vick filed his plea agreement, admitting, among other things, that he put up money for gambling on dogfights, but he said he did not bet on dogfights, or take any of the winnings.

It was not enough, however, to convince NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who swiftly suspended Vick, saying he had, indeed, violated anti-gambling terms of his contract and exposed himself to corrupting influences.

Vick's troubles follow on those of NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who allegedly bet on games in which he officiated, prompting the NBA Commissioner, David Stern, to say it was the worst such situation he had ever experienced.

Stern and Goodell are merely the latest sports commissioners to lash out at the bogeyman of illegal gambling by officials and athletes. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who became the first commissioner of organized professional baseball, banned Chicago White Sox players for throwing the 1919 World Series. And in 1989, baseball's Bart Giamatti sent gambling superstar Pete Rose into exile with a lifetime ban.

Fay Vincent was baseball's deputy commissioner when Rose was banned.

"I think their personal behavior does not impinge on the essence of the game. It doesn't change people's interest and it doesn't affect the outcome," Vincent said.

David Stern insists the Donaghy scandal is limited to "a rogue, isolated criminal." Illegal gambling within sports, however, happens more than you might think.

Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA director of agents, gambling and amateurism activities, said a 2003 survey on gambling in the league showed about 2 percent of college football and men's basketball players had been asked to effect the outcome of a game.

As a result of the survey, the NCAA started working closer with Las Vegas, where sports betting is legal and regulated. It is something the professional leagues have done as well, according to gambling expert R.J. Bell.

Bell said people in Las Vegas know what is going on in betting and would be the first to spot irregularities.

An even better way to root out corruption is to embrace certain kinds of sports gambling, according to Wharton School of business Professor Justin Wolfers.

His research shows most sports gambling scandals of the last century have involved athletes getting paid off to manipulate the point spread rather than purposely lose games.

"Maybe win by nine or 10 points, if the spread is 12, rather than by 13 or 14. That's a pretty compelling proposition to a sports player, who only cares about whether he wins the game, thus making him or her more corruptible," Wolfers said.

Wolfers offers this remedy: prohibit gambling on point spreads and the so-called over/under bets and legalize betting on whom wins games.

Any kind of legalization is a hard sell to sports commissioners, even though gambling experts said betting benefits sports leagues by generating interest — and, thus, more money.

But the leaders are fixed in their hard-line stance. When asked about more liberal policies toward sports betting, Fay Vincent quoted Winston Churchill. "If you keep appeasing the crocodile, the crocodile eventually will eat you," he said.

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