Could players throw World Series today as Black Sox did 100 years ago?October 23, 2019
A century after the Chicago Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series, it might seem impossible that such a scandal could happen again – much less when the Washington Nationals play the Houston Astros in the 2019 World Series, which starts Tuesday.
“Listen, never say never,” retired FBI special agent Andrew Arena told USA TODAY Sports. “Could it happen? I mean, I think anything’s possible.”
Sports gambling scandals are nothing new to Arena. He was in charge of the Detroit’s FBI office in 2007 when agents there broke open a point-shaving scandal at the University of Toledo involving four basketball players and three football players.
All seven athletes were sentenced to probation and ordered to pay fines and perform community service for their part in taking money and other things of value to influence games between 2004 and 2006. The lead gambler was sentenced to six years in prison and his gambling partner was sentenced to two years in prison.
It was an example of how organized crime could influence college sports, Arena said at the time. And this week he described how gathering information about the mob’s attempts to infiltrate sports for gambling purposes was among his tasks when he worked for the FBI’s organized crime unit from the late 1980s to the 1990s.
Yes, Arena said, he understands that professional athletes make massive amounts of money that would be at risk if they were caught trying to fix games – conceivably a powerful deterrent.
“Athletes make a lot of money, but they can blow through it pretty quickly too,” said Arena, now executive director of the Detroit Crime Commission. “Some of them just like the action.
“I was always worried more about (college sports). But where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
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Undeniably, there was a will and a way in 1919. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox, now better known as the Black Sox, were accused of intentionally losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Although the players were acquitted in a trial, they were banned from Major League Baseball for life and widely presumed as guilty of a conspiracy that sparks debate today – a very different time for sports gambling and perhaps for potential game fixers too.
Last year, the Supreme Court lifted the federal ban on sports betting and legalized sports gambling quickly spread. In addition to Nevada, 10 states offer sports betting – a change that retired FBI agent Keith Slotter has followed with interest.
Slotter was head of the FBI’s San Diego field office when agents carried out “Operation Hook Shot,” which uncovered a sports bribery case at the University of San Diego.
Brandon Johnson, then the program’s career scoring leader was sentenced to six months in prison for his role in fixing games during the 2009-2000 season. A former assistant coach who served as a middleman between the players and the gamblers was sentenced to a year in prison and the lead gambler in the scheme was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
Slotter also spent three years with the FBI’s financial crimes unit that looked in part for corrupt gambling activity.
But Slotter, who retired in 2012, said he doesn’t foresee another Black Sox scandal.
“Any crime like that, whether it’s sports fraud or betting or anything along those lines, two elements that are always required are motivation and opportunity,” Slotter said. “And in today’s world, unlike 100 years ago, I don’t think either of those exist in a realistic sort of way.”
Slotter pointed out that “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the Black Sox’s star, was paid like an Average Joe by the team – creating far more incentive to throw games for profit than presumably would exist for the multimillionaires that populate the today’s professional sports leagues.
Another contrast: In 1919, there wasn’t even a radio broadcast of the game. (The first baseball game broadcast on radio took place in 1921.)
“Now you’ve got millions of eyes and replay watching ever single thing they do from every conceivable angle,” he said. “And in addition to that, a lot of money is on the line in the huge sports betting industry. So with that type of scrutiny and the money they’re already making, it just wouldn’t make sense. it would be very difficult to pull off.”
Whereas the eight Black Sox players faced a prosecutor, now MLB has its very own. Well, former federal prosecutor – Bryan Seeley, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for investigations, compliance and security at MLB.
“The idea that someone could manipulate a nine-inning game in Major League Baseball, it’s hard to think that could happen again these days,” Seeley said. “But we’re certainly always on guard for it.”
MLB has partnered with with Sportradar, a company collects and analyzes betting data to help ensure the integrity of sports contests. (The NFL, NBA and NHL use similar services.)
Seeley said Sportsradar “is able to look at line movements across a large number of bookmakers in many different jurisdictions, both legal and illegal bookmakers. And gives us alerts if there is any sort of unusual betting activity or unusual line activity that night cause concern or might require us to look more deeply into that.
“If someone were to try to do what was done in 1919 and influence players to reach certain outcome in a game in order to profit on that you have to bet on that, right? There has to be money put into the betting markets at some point. Putting in a large amount of money in the betting market is likely going to move a line somewhere and that’s how you can initially spot that something could be up.”
Kevin Braig, an attorney from Ohio who has studied the Black Sox scandal and the current sports gambling landscape, would be happy to take a wager from anyone betting on a modern-day Black Sox sequel. Impossible, he said of the chances of a team throwing the World Series. But the notion triggered a thought.
“Here’s a little known fact that nobody talks about with the 1919 World Series,” Braig said. “Have you ever heard of Hal Chase?”
Chase was a first basemen who in 1919 played for the New York Giants – and was rumored to be a middleman between the players and the gamblers in the Black Sox scandal.
”He was an addicted gambler,” Braig said. “He had a lot of addictions and people with addictions have a lot of debts.”
A modern-day Hal Chase, Braig suggested, is someone MLB should fear – especially if such characters are lurking in the shadows.
“As Judge Brandeis always said, ‘Sunshine is the best disinfectant.’ ” Braig offered. “The best way to ensure the integrity of the game with sports betting, from my point of view, is to make it as open and transparent as possible, regulate it appropriately and have the incentives in the right places.
“That will do the trick.”
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