Do Harsh Punishments Ease Gambling's Stain? Gambling is a common thread in recent scandals involving NBA referee Tim Donaghy and NFL quarterback Michael Vick. The people who run pro sports are willing to penalize gamblers within their ranks. Are the punishments effective?
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Do Harsh Punishments Ease Gambling's Stain?

Hear NPR's Tom Goldman

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. As we've been reporting this morning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has resigned, and we will have more on that story in a moment. But we want to keep you up to date on other things happening this morning. So we tell you now that Michael Vick is in court today. The star quarterback for pro football's Atlanta Falcons is expected to formally plead guilty to felony dog fighting charges.

He filed his plea agreement last Friday. The National Football League suspended him indefinitely after he admitted, among other things, putting up money for gambling on dogfights.

Now, it may be the word dogfight that disturbs you most. But the word that most bothers sports leagues is gambling.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Michael Vick downplayed the gambling aspect of his case. He admitted providing money for his co-defendants but said he didn't bet on dogfights or take any of the winnings, to which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, essentially, nice try. Goodell swiftly suspended Vick and in a finger-wagging letter to the quarterback said he did indeed violate anti-gambling terms of his contract and exposed himself to corrupting influences.

And this was for gambling related to dog fighting. Imagine how Goodell might have felt if Vick had been involved in gambling on football games. Probably a lot like NBA Commissioner David Stern felt last month when he called the betting scandal involving former NBA referee Tim Donaghy the worst situation he'd ever experienced.

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

Mr. BARTLETT GIAMATTI: (Commissioner, Major League Baseball): The matter of Mr. Rose is now closed. It will be debated and discussed. Let no one think that it did not hurt baseball.

Mr. FAY VINCENT (Deputy Commissioner, Major League Baseball): The reason gambling is so toxic, so lethal, is that if you fix the games, if you rig the outcome, what fan is going to care about the result?

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

Can you preserve the integrity of the games when the games - and we've seen this a lot this summer in particular - when the games are being played by some athletes whose personal integrity is compromised?

Mr. VINCENT: 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.

GOLDMAN: David Stern insists the Tim Donaghy scandal is limited, in Stern's words to a rogue isolated criminal. But illegal gambling within sports happens more than you might think.

Rachel Newman-Baker is with the NCAA.

Ms. RACHEL NEWMAN-BAKER (Director of Agents, NCAA): Oh, I think it absolutely was very much surprising for our membership and a lot of concern.

GOLDMAN: Newman-Baker is talking about a 2003 survey on gambling. It showed about two percent of college football and men's basketball players polled were asked to affect the outcome of the game.

As a result of the survey, the NCAA started working closer with Las Vegas, where sports betting is legal and regulated.

It's something the pro-leagues have done as well, according to gambling expert R.J. Bell.

Mr. R.J. BELL (Gambling Expert): Knowing that Las Vegas has the best pulse on the betting action, it will be the first entity that would spot any irregularities.

GOLDMAN: An even better way to root out corruption: embrace certain kinds of sports gambling. That's what Wharton School business professor Justin Wolfers says. 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.

Professor JUSTIN WOLFERS (Wharton School of Business): 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 or not he wins the game, thus making him or her more corruptible.

GOLDMAN: Wolfers offers this remedy: prohibit gambling on point spreads and the so-called over/under bets and legalize betting on who wins games. Any kind of legalization is a hard sell to sports commissioners. Even though gambling experts say betting benefits sports leagues by generating interest, and thus more money, the leaders are fixed in their hard-line stance.

Asked about more liberal policies toward sports gambling, Fay Vincent quotes Winston Churchill. If you keep appeasing the crocodile, the crocodile eventually will eat you.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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