5 Notorious Sports Betting Scandals

sports betting scandals

Depending on where you go, and what circles you spend time in, sports betting can be seen as anything: a legitimate way to make a career, a pleasant pastime, or even, in puritanical circles, a practice to be shunned.

But when is it seen as scandalous?

Sports enthusiasts, players, and management all seem to agree: when the people who are involved in sports start betting on sports, it’s a scandal.

It’s easy to see why players betting on their own games could generate scandal. If a player bets on their own team to lose, they can throw the game, and end up with a huge payday. The cost, of course, is the integrity of the game.

Why players betting on other teams is scandalous is harder to understand, but it does make sense. It’s a bit like insider trading – an active player in the NFL is going to get access to footage, statistics, and other insights that regular sports bettors would never be able to obtain. They’ll know about injuries, and even how players on other teams are feeling, long before the general public does.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at 5 sports betting scandals – all of which were created by professionals who were actively involved in team sports (as players, refs, or management) at the time their bets were placed.  

Black Sox Scandal

Let’s start with what must be the most notorious sports betting scandal of all time: the Black Sox.

Imagine throwing the World Series. That’s exactly what 8 members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of doing in 1919. They were playing in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The players who were accused of fixing games are:

  • Arnold “Chick” Gandil – the ringleader of the fix
  • Buck Weaver 
  • Charles “Swede” Risberg
  • Claude “Lefty” Williams
  • Eddie Cicotte
  • Fred McMullin
  • Oscar “Happy” Felsch
  • “Shoeless” Joe Jackson

In short, it’s alleged that these players intentionally threw the Series in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate run by mobster, Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein. They were all permanently banned from baseball.

There are a few really interesting facts about this scandal. First, the players went before a court – and they were all acquitted. Many players admit to having taken part in meetings to fix the games, but claim that they eventually bowed out. Why? They thought the League was aware of the fixing attempt, and they were afraid of being watched.

Next, we have to talk about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (with a name like that, it’s no surprise his white socks turned black). He claims to have never been a part of the scandal – and in fact, he claims he tried to report the scandal as it developed. He reportedly refused several offers of $5000, only to have $5000 thrown on his hotel floor. The other seven players involved in the scandal confirm he was never at any of the meetings.

And Jackson’s batting record in the Series speaks volumes – he led both teams in batting average. However, he seems to have admitted to some level of guilt in a grand jury testimony, admitting to intentionally failing to catch balls.

Quite a convoluted and daring scandal! 

Pete Rose

No one has played more games of Major League Baseball than Pete Rose. He’s the MLB’s all-time hit leader. A legend of the game. 

What’s more, one of the biggest scandals in MLB history revolves around him. We’re not talking about the time he shoved umpire Dave Pallone – though that’s worth an article in its own right.

Pete Rose, as a manager of the Cincinnati Reds, bet on baseball games. We’ve already discussed the ramifications of betting on the games of other teams – but Pete Rose bet on the Cincinnati Reds. 

It’s not clear whether or not he ever bet against the Reds – he claims to have only ever bet for his team to win. There’s no evidence to the contrary – but the League decided to play it safe.

By “play it safe”, we mean Pete Rose was banned from baseball. He’s even banned from ever being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

So Pete Rose only ever bet on his team to win – but did he always bet on his team to beat the spread? Was he betting the moneyline every time? That brings us to an interesting term: point shaving. The idea behind point shaving is this: you can play to win, but to win by just enough to lose against the spread.

There’s no evidence that Pete Rose did this, but it highlights the kind of sports betting behavior that’s open to managers – the kind of thing the folks running Major League Baseball don’t want to have even a whiff of in their sport. 

Tim Donaghy

By now, it should be obvious that players and managers shouldn’t bet on games – they have a lot of power and influence over the possible outcomes. 

It goes without saying, though, that refs have considerable influence over the outcome – in some ways, an even greater influence than players and management. And in the interest of steering away from MLB scandals, we’re going to look at the Tim Donaghy scandal, and how it influenced NBA games. 

Tim Donaghy was a ref in the NBA – and from 2005-2007, he bet on the games he was reffing. There’s also some evidence that he was involved in something akin to point shaving. When he was refereeing in 2005-2007, the teams playing when he was refereeing scored more points than expected by sportsbooks 55% of the time. In previous seasons (Before the scandal), teams only scored more than expected 44% of the time when Donaghy was refereeing).

It goes to show you how much influence a ref can have on NBA games. 

Donaghy was caught, and ended up in jail over the scandal. And it certainly didn’t do any good for the NBA’s reputation. 

Paul Hornung and Alex Karras

The Paul Hornung and Alex Karras “scandal” may be the most innocuous one on our entire list. We all understand why players aren’t permitted to bet, and why sports gambling is at its best when the people involved in the sports aren’t betting.

Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions were both banned from the NFL for a year in 1963 for betting on NFL games and “associating with undesirable persons”. They were reinstated in 1964, and continued to play in the League after that. They never bet on their own games, and they only bet relatively small amounts. 

The most notable thing about this sports gambling scandal? Alex Karras was asked by an official to call a pre-game coin toss in 1964 (at that point, he’d been reinstated and was playing for the Lions). He refused, saying “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not permitted to gamble”.

Hilarious.  

Art Schlichter

A quarterback for the Colts (Baltimore, then Indianapolis), Art Schlichter has what must be the saddest story of all of the scandals we’re talking about today. He was a gambling addict who ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to various bookies – he had blown his entire $350,000 signing bonus on gambling by the middle of his starting season in the NFL.

The NFL forbids its players from gambling of any kind, and though Art was mostly betting on basketball (and not NFL games), his sports gambling addiction became a huge problem.

Being hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, Art became worried his bookies would try to force him to throw games or engage in point shaving to pay off his debts. He alerted the FBI of illicit activity by his bookies, and told the NFL about his gambling problems.

He was suspended for 13 months under the condition that he underwent treatment for his gambling addiction. He did so, but Art was plagued with gambling problems for the rest of his life. He never had a very successful career in the NFL, his efforts impeded by an arrest, his sports gambling addiction, and other problems.

The arrest that cost Art the most was for his involvement with a multimillion dollar sports gambling scheme. That arrest caused the NFL’s commissioner, Pete Rozelle, to veto an offer from the Cincinnati Bengals that would have allowed Art to continue to play in the NFL.

Conclusion

We’ve discussed a lot about gambling in professional sports – grand juries, addiction, wrong calls, banishment from the Hall of Fame, players fixing games, refs doing the same, point shaving – you name it. It’s easy to see why leagues want to dissuade gambling by pro players, management, and officials – it stirs up a lot of controversy.

Of course, as sports bettors ourselves at Kyle Covers, we prefer it when no one involved in professional sports is betting – lets us avoid conflicts of interest. The cleaner sports are, the cleaner sports betting can be – and that’s better for everyone.