"Gimme a quarterback, an offensive lineman, and a defensive back," legendary sports gambler Lem Banker once told me, "and I can control the outcome of any football game." The reality is an aspiring game fixer doesn't need all three. One key player (or referee) could alter the outcome of any NFL game enough to cover the point spread. And it is much easier than you would believe to sink your hooks into such a person—and get away with it.
The fallacy that dominates this discussion is that today's professional athletes make too much money to fall victim to a simple bribe. On the surface, this holds true, however, investigations into soccer match fixing in Europe have repeatedly shown that it is older, more established players who are open to fixing games. Why? Because much like Allen Iverson, Mark Brunell, and a host of other athletes, millions of dollars in contracts and endorsements can still result in bankruptcy by a career's end. The offer to make a quick buck by shaving a few points on the way out the door can be quite tempting to a broke athlete. (Scary truth: a player in such financial dire straits deciding to shave points on his own without being bribed isn't breaking any federal law.)
By and large, game fixing is a crime of opportunity. A would-be fixer cannot necessarily pick a player to work with or a game to fix out of a hat. The best scenario has the player coming to him. Athletes with drug problems or gambling debts can easily find themselves jammed up with the wrong sort of people. Of course, a couple of illicit photographs showing a star athlete in compromising positions could also end with said athlete under someone's heavy thumb. In these situations, money is superfluous. Blackmail forces a player into shaving points as the mere offer to make the problem "disappear" seals the deal.
I've been told by more than one gambling insider that you'd have to be a complete idiot to bet on a fixed game in Las Vegas. Thanks to state regulations and the sports books' corporate atmosphere, all bets are monitored. Wager over $10,000 and a Vegas sports book will kindly ask for your ID and social security number—that is if they'll even accept your bet (sports books do have limits, especially if you're unknown to them and/or wagering on an unpopular game). And to make any fix worth its while, the betting would certainly need to exceed five figures.
This means the money needs to be spread around the illegal sports gambling underworld. This isn't as simple as betting in Vegas, yet most big-time sports gamblers have multiple "outs," that is bookies or websites through which they can wager on games. Of course, a large bet on an unusual game might raise a few eyebrows, but who's going to squeal? Illegal sports betting in the United States is a $100-$400 billion a year industry controlled by organized crime. The mob is not about to go running to the feds with allegations of questionable wagering on a potentially fixed game. As the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA showed, it's much more likely that bookies and gamblers will "piggyback" on such insider information and attempt to profit from the fix as well.
Joe Namath was accused of fixing two games during the New York Jets run to Super Bowl III. Broadway Joe threw five interceptions in a loss to the Buffalo Bills, and provided another five INTs to the Denver Broncos in a subsequent loss. Namath confronted these allegations in his autobiography I Can't Wait Until Tomorrow…'Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day, writing "Hell, you'd have to be an idiot to make it that obvious. If you want to throw a game, you don't have to allow a single pass to be intercepted. You just screw up one or two handoffs, and the running back can't handle them, and he fumbles the ball, and he takes the blame. Then maybe you throw a critical third-down pass a little low, and you let the punter come in and give the ball to the other team. You don't give it away yourself."
Hey Joe, who paid for that coat? Photo by Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports
So how easy is it to spot a fix in progress? Can you tell if the guard is pulling as fast as possible to make that key block? Was that holding penalty an accident? Did the quarterback just misread the coverage? Or did the cornerback wrongly assume he had safety help when the wide receiver sprinted past?
Let's be honest. It would be extremely difficult to know whether a player had a bad game on purpose or not, especially if they followed Broadway Joe's sound advice. The FBI has had similar problems.
The Bureau could receive a tip from a gambler or bookie informing them that a player was working with a fixer to shave points in a game prior to kick-off, see the wager come home thanks to poor play from the player in question, and yet still not be able to make an arrest. A bad game isn't proof of a fix. Watching hours of game film—and the FBI has done this in the past—wouldn't clarify the situation for them, even if the Bureau brought in knowledgeable experts to assist.
In other words, a stadium packed full of fans with millions more watching on TV can't detect a fix as it occurs. You've likely seen a fixed game and not known it.
It's alleged that former Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Bobby Layne fixed numerous games during his Hall of Fame career (and that his trade from his former team to the latter occurred because of his gambling habits). But outside of the cabal currently fixing international soccer matches, most fixers appear to be of the one-and-done variety. Like bank robbers, they get in and get out before anyone catches on to what happened.
Pushing things too far runs the risk of the player cracking or the plot being recognized. But then again, what's the worry? Who's about to expose anything?
The sports leagues? The integrity of their games is their prime selling point. Any fix—even rumors of such—destroy the façade. To fight against this, each major league has its own security division staffed with former FBI, CIA, DEA, and Secret Service agents. But as we've seen in examples like the Ray Rice and Jeff Locke cases, these entities are more apt to keep things quiet as opposed to making them public. Protect the shield… at all costs.
Meanwhile, the media's investigative instincts have shriveled up and died. Rarely does the major sports media reveal corruption within the leagues they now fund (and need to draw in viewers and sell magazines). If law enforcement isn't making an arrest, does the media even know something is afoot anymore?
Speaking of arrests, the FBI has gotten out of the game fixing investigation business. Despite the fact that sports bribery—that is violations of the 1964 Sports Bribery Act—is the FBI's sole jurisdiction, the Bureau stopped actively creating leads for such investigations in the mid-1980s. All of the most recent game fixing scandals that the FBI was involved in—Tim Donaghy, University of San Diego, University of Toledo, Northwestern, Boston College, etc.—stemmed from investigations into other crimes.
So the checklist for fixing a game is pretty simple: Find a vulnerable athlete (check), bet a soft line in the illegal sports gambling underworld (check), get your vulnerable athlete to play at less than 100 percent without making it obvious (check), and then hope the uninterested FBI, NFL, or sports media doesn't catch wind of the plot (check).
Now tell me again what makes game fixing at the professional level impossible?