In the wake of yet another major match fixing scandal in Italian soccer, where police have arrested 17 people including 11 players and are investigating more than 50 players from 22 different Italian clubs, we are once again left staring straight into the ugly, unscrupulous world of professional sports.
Could something like this happen in America? It would be naïve to think it can't.
Clearly, there are issues in Italian soccer. Just six years after a match-fixing scandal that rocked Seria A to its foundation–relegating the likes of super club Juventus and knocking AC Milan and Fiorentina out of Champions League play–Italian authorities have built a case so strong they're arresting people during Italy's training for Euro 2012.
Are things more untoward in Italy or are their authorities just better at investigating? Does it have to be that black and white? The world is so quick to point a finger at Italian soccer's misdeeds, who's to say the same thing isn't happening on our shores.
The NBA had a recent scandal that may not have involved players or coaches, but did land "rogue official" Tim Donaghy in prison. There have been many point shaving or game fixing scandals in college sports, even very recently, which stands to reason (in some unfortunate way) given the lack of money paid to college players. The high profile nature of college sports coupled with the lack of pay for players is a breeding ground for third parties to shatter the structure's integrity by throwing a little cash at key players.
That makes sense, in some perverse way. Heck, even NBA referees taking money makes sense, given their pay in comparison to the players. There is no way you can convince me college referees aren't taking kick backs to cover spreads or help determine winners. Certainly, one would need proof to out any referee in particular, but it's hard to believe so many officials are that inconsistent without some more nefarious inklings at work.
Professional players, though, make so much money it seems nearly impossible to be able to orchestrate a wide spread game-fixing syndicate. And yet, we have Italy.
Nick Tarnowski and I discussed this topic on our weekly show and he brought the astute point that players don't necessarily get paid off to fix matches or cover spreads. Players could have their own gambling issues and get involved in fixing results in an effort to get out of their own bad debts.
Some situations may be even less seedy than that, to be fair. Given how public the lives of athletes have become, it would not be hard for criminal organizations to target players or their families in an effort to create a regular money-making advantage. In other words, if a mob boss threatened to kill your wife and kids unless you let a few balls go past you, wouldn't you think twice before diving to stop the next free kick?
That's probably giving the Serie A and Serie B players involved in this recent scandal a bit too much credit. With 52 players on 22 teams involving 33 matches reportedly under investigation, it would mean a whole lot of threats without anyone putting a stop to it. More likely, some (or all) of the players are benefiting financially.
It makes sense in a lower division, but for Serie A players to be involved, especially given the issues a few years ago, seems impossible.
Could a net this wide be cast upon an American league?
In baseball, it would be easy to pay off a pitcher. We talk about how much the top-flight pitchers make, but every team has a fourth of fifth starter who clearly isn't making as much as the rest of the rotation. Heck, even a young player who hasn't reach his arbitration age probably makes so little in comparison to more established players that someone could find enough money to have him groove a few fastballs. Nobody would really ever know, but there is no way a pitcher can keep his team from playing solid defense and scoring runs
When the BlackSox Scandal rocked baseball, there were eight players from that team banned from the game (and a player from another team who was banned for betting on games with the information he was given from one of the players). Keep in mind, in 1919, players weren't exactly making what they are today, inflation be damned. It was much easier to pay off a player in those days and still there were eight players–or seven if you believe the innocence of Shoeless Joe Jackson–who conspired to throw the World Series.
The NBA obviously has gambling issues, but does anyone think the players would ever get involved? Sure, a shooter could have an odd off night or a player could get injured or find himself in early foul trouble to take himself out of the game. That said, NBA players make so much money, the payoffs to an impact player would have to be immense. Even if one player was taking a bribe, there's no guarantee his team couldn't still win without him, meaning payoffs of at least two superstar players to throw any NBA game.
However, NBA teams do get accused of tanking to get more lottery balls, so can we really assume teams wouldn't tank for actual cash?
Still, it's much easier to just pay off the referees. It's probably more effective too.
A goalie in hockey, much like in soccer, would have the biggest impact if a game were fixed. Still, goalies who give up a few soft goals often get pulled for the back-up and teams can routinely come from behind after a goalie change, meaning anyone hoping to really fix a hockey game would have to get a few players to conspire.
When compared to NBA or top flight MLB players, NHL players make lower salaries perhaps making it financially, if not morally, easier to bribe a hockey player. Hockey may be the most similar situation to soccer, but given Serie A's status in Italy and around the world, we might need a higher profile American sport to compare.
Individual sports like tennis and boxing are obviously the easiest to fix. Let's leave those aside and focus on team sports.
Really, we are left with the NFL and in a way, the bounty situation is tantamount to match fixing.
If reports are true that external parties were offering bounties to knock specific players out, isn't that eerily similar to asking a player to take a dive for money? Yes, one is asking the player to go above-and-beyond to try to help his team win, while the other would be trying to make his team lose (or keep the game close to cover the spread) but both situations hypothetically involve people giving money to players to go outside the rules of the game to impact the end result.
If that's not match fixing, I'm not sure what is.
That said, this is a lot like the old notion that Pete Rose bet on baseball but only for the Reds to win. There is something far more unethical about taking money to tank.
Still, it would be pretty easy to ask a kicker to miss a few kicks or pay a punt returner to muff a key return. Running backs fumble all the time and quarterbacks can throw interceptions a few times per game. Defensive players constantly miss tackles or get flagged with terrible pass interference penalties. Offensive linemen destroy drives with untimely holding calls. The list of in-game errors could go on.
Point being, there are a lot of ways to throw a football game and not all of the players on the field are making millions upon millions of dollars the stars do. With non-guaranteed contracts and short NFL careers, even star players may find it hard to ignore the opportunities there for a player to grab a quick payday to keep a game close.
It could be any of them. It could be all of them. We hope it is none of them.
It's naïve to think this only happens in Italian soccer and it's just as naïve to think it doesn't happen in the current climate of American professional sports.
Herman Edwards once coined the famous line, "you play to win the game." We surely want to believe that to be true. Only sometimes it's not.