For New Yorkers old enough to remember Harry Truman, the sight of Columbia Law School grad David Stern standing in front of TV cameras and looking pale and shaken for the first time in his career as NBA commissioner brought back a nightmare of memories. On July 24, Stern called the allegations of game-fixing by former referee Tim Donaghy “the most serious situation and worst situation . . . I’ve ever experienced, either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA, or commissioner of the NBA.”
That, of course, is how a commissioner ought to react to such scandals; that’s what he gets paid for. Commissioners in professional sports are, after all, hired by the league’s owners and serve under personal-services contracts. A big part of their job is to put a human face on fan outrage in times of scandal: If the commissioner doesn’t do that, who will? But is the Donaghy scandal really “the most serious situation” Stern has ever experienced in the NBA? Wasn’t the charge of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant or Ron Artest’s bitch-slap of a fan or Latrell Sprewell’s near-strangulation of coach P.J. Carlesimo just a bit more serious? Might not some NBA owners consider the alarming drop in the ratings of the NBA finals a bigger long-term problem than an out-of-control ref? Does Donaghy’s malfeasance really represent, as Sports Illustrated‘s Jack McCallum implied last week, “less a hit to the solar plexus than to the very soul” of the NBA?
In fact, if Donaghy is, as Stern insists and as current evidence seems to indicate, “a rogue isolated criminal,” then the current NBA mess
will prove to be small potatoes compared to past sports-fixing scandals, particularly the New York college basketball massacre of the early
1950s. When it hit the fan in 1951, New York district attorney Frank Hogan arrested players from five New York schools, including CCNY,
Manhattan College, NYU, and Long Island University, as well as three New York bookmakers.
The arrests would eventually include 32 players from all over the country who helped fix 86 games between 1947 and 1950, but most reporters who covered the case always believed that the arrests were just the tip of the iceberg.
For instance, a New York City referee named Sol Levy, known to be implicated in the fixes, was suspended but otherwise unpunished—there was no provision in Section 382 of the New York State penal code for the punishment of referees involved in fixing sporting events. How widespread the corruption was we’ll never know, but America got a glimpse when the nation’s premier basketball power, the Kentucky Wildcats of Adolph “The Baron” Rupp, got badly burned. Rupp (whose team had lost the national championship to CCNY in an 89-50 rout in 1950) remarked that the scandal was restricted to “Jews and niggers” in New York and that “gamblers couldn’t get near my boys with a ten-foot pole.” Shortly after two of Rupp’s players were implicated, a package was delivered to Rupp’s office in Lexington, Kentucky. It contained an 11-foot pole and a card that read “Courtesy of The New York Basketball Writers Association.”
There was a big winner in the whole affair: the NCAA, which, according to former executive director Walter Byars, was granted an enormous amount of power by member schools to curtail gambling and game-fixing in its ranks. As subsequent scandals at Arizona State, Tulane, and Boston College have illustrated, the NCAA has never come close to achieving that goal.
The sad truth, though, is that despite the lives and reputations ruined, college basketball scandals have done nothing at all to hurt the sport and had no effect whatsoever on its popularity. In fact, the enormous popularity of college basketball and gambling have clearly gone hand in hand. In March of 2000, the Nevada State Gaming Commission revealed that more than $172 million was
legally wagered on the NCAA Men’s Tournament in Nevada alone. The total amount of money legally bet on sporting events in April of that year was $53 million. The average college basketball fan is certainly capable of doing that math.
The same can be said for the mother of all American sports fixes, the Black Sox scandal, manipulated, if not actually engineered, by New York’s own gambling kingpin, Arnold Rothstein. We now know that the conspiracy of eight Chicago White Sox players to throw the 1919 World Series was just the best-known of baseball fixes in that era, but myths about the Black Sox live on. One of the most cherished of all baseball fairy tales has Babe Ruth rescuing a disillusioned fandom from despair over the knowledge that the great Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates had sold out to gamblers. During the 1920 season, when gossip about the fix was rife, attendance was soaring, not just in the American League, where fans could see Ruth, but in the National League, where they couldn’t. In 1921, in the wake of the scandal, attendance in both leagues took a slight dip—though it still remained at the second-highest point in major league history. By 1924, attendance cracked the nine-million mark, a level it didn’t fall below until the Great Depression.
All real fans are concerned with the integrity of the game and appreciate the position David Stern is in and the efforts he’s making to keep the influence of gamblers off-court. But let’s not get caught up in the media frenzy over a single crooked ref. The NBA doesn’t have to worry about declining fan interest because of fix rumors; the NBA has to worry about those TV ratings.