For the past few years the idea that our favorite pro sports are rigged has slowly crept into my mind. It’s easy to convince oneself that while boxing has been rigged for decades, they’d never do that to us with football, basketball, or baseball. Well, as of this year I’m finally convinced it is not only possible but likely.
Flash back to the 2000 NBA Playoffs, game 7 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers. At the time I was a college student in Miami and just wanted to see the Lakers lose since my dad raised me liking the Celtics.
So, early in the fourth quarter of this winner-take-all game Portland is up 15 points and looking strong—when all of a sudden they forget how to score and end up losing in regulation after LA outscores them 31-11. I’ll never forget the iconic image of Shaquille O’Neal running down the court with mouth agape after throwing down an alley oop slam dunk to seal the win. I felt that something was not right but at the time I was a naïve 21-year-old focused on school, and watching sports was just a casual diversion with friends.
Fast forward through 13 years of experience in the real world, starting businesses, dealing with all types of personalities, slowly becoming more humble, wise, and jaded as my grandiose dreams met head on with life’s inevitable disappointments and the 30-day cycle of terror that is paying one’s bills. Along the way I saw enough fishy sports outcomes that finally congealed into a blip on my mental radar.
As a born-and-raised Boston Red Sox fan I’d hate to think that the 2004 comeback against the Yankees was rigged, but looking back to the previous year’s playoffs—where both the Sox and Chicago Cubs were two innings away from meeting each other in what would have been a World Series for the ages, but somehow ended up as the ratings and revenue disaster that was the Yankees-Marlins matchup—and I can’t help but think the league gave the people what they wanted this time.
The power outage at last year’s Super Bowl and subsequent miracle comeback by the 49ers was pretty much what pushed me over the edge. Here you have the Baltimore Ravens in total control of the game when half of the stadium’s lights go out…next thing you know it’s the end of the game and their defense has to fend off a fourth down throw in the end zone to avoid losing! If that had happened the entire city of Baltimore would have burned and hell, I might have jumped on a plane to help them out.
So the fix is in. But something interesting has happened to me this time around. Somehow I’m not as emotionally attached to the disappointment of thinking that a good portion of big time sports is rigged. It was actually comical to me that Ohio State covered the 10-point spread against underdog Northwestern only by a last-second fumble recovery in the end zone this past October. Similarly, seeing all-time-great Peyton Manning unable to turn a 24-point halftime lead against the Patriots into a win in November just made me giggle and ask, “Am I the only one who sees what’s going on here?”
Too much gambling and advertising money is on the line to leave these games up to players on the field of battle. Bookies need to cover their spreads and paid commercials need to get watched—and Joe Six Pack isn’t going to sit through the fourth quarter if Tom Brady is down by 30 points (even he can’t overcome that).
I won’t get too deep into the minutiae and theories about just how game rigging plays out—whether it’s some combination of officiating, owner/coach instructions to certain players, or most of the players just accepting that becoming a “professional” means being part of a business that’s selling a product and so it’s in their best interest to be on board with bringing about nail-biting finishes and interesting storylines.
Would you rather make great money chasing a leather ball around or stand on your integrity and install sinks for an average living? Would you rather have a thousand adoring kids wear jerseys with your name on the back or explain to your own kids that Daddy wouldn’t agree to fumble so that the bigger-market team got to the playoffs and sold more merchandise, a percentage of which your own team received through the NFL’s revenue-sharing agreement?
I went to my first Portland Trail Blazers game recently and for the first time was able to appreciate the whole experience as a fun two-hour entertainment spectacle, from the dramatic player introductions to the sexy cheerleaders prancing around to the random movie clips that appeared on the Jumbotron in between free throws. Giving the people a good show after a hard day’s work.
Which leads me to this final thought: I ended up living in Los Angeles for 11 years, during which time I came to be at least Laker-neutral if not begrudgingly appreciative. Thinking back on the times the Lakers were playing on TV while I was at a bar or restaurant, I can’t help but reflect now that the team really wasn’t for sophisticated, cynical types like me.
The Lakers were for the young first-generation Mexican-Americans with arm tattoos and ball caps tilted to the side, cocky and healthy and fully Americanized. The Lakers were for the cook in back of a Korean restaurant who could barely speak English but had found something to link him to this overwhelming city: the winning team in purple and gold.
NOTE: Just a few days after this editorial was published I caught the end of the New Mexico Bowl between Washington State and Colorado State, a game whose absurd ending surely gives credence to the game fixing scenario and should be investigated.
Late in the game WSU is up by 15 points. CSU scores a touchdown, kicks an extra point, and on the ensuing kickoff the WSU receiver catches the ball, runs up, then dives down safely before even being hit. The WSU offense then converts a clutch 3rd down pass with around 2 minutes left–CSU has no timeouts meaning that if WSU takes a knee three times, they’d be punting up by 8 points with just seconds left on the clock.
But here’s what happened: on first down the QB keeps the ball and fumbles. Instant replay proves that he was down before losing the ball so WSU keeps it. On second down the running back fumbles. The CSU offense then scores a touchdown and converts a 2-point try to tie the game. Overtime seems assured. But when CSU kicks off with around 30 seconds left, this time the WSU receiver does run into the fray…and promptly fumbles. CSU then kicks the winning field goal as time expires.
Give me a fucking break! Now I know that the sponsors of these lesser bowl games wanted high scoring affairs with nail-biter finishes to keep people watching the ads and have their companies’ names bouncing around their heads, but this is ridiculous. At the very least surely there should have been overtime…but another fumble?! The whole sequence stretches the bounds of probability and rips a gaping hole of suspicion…and I don’t know if I want to poke my eyes or fingers into it.
Sad to think that even at the college (read, semi-pro) level that some players and coaches are complicit in this racket. You have to feel sorry for the kids who aren’t in on the scam and have their hearts broken by traitors wearing the same uniform. Earnest boys like in the movie “Rudy” who fulfilled their childhood dream of playing in a bowl game, now falling victim to the very game fixing machinations that many players from poor backgrounds are forced into early on in Pop Warner days.
Former University of Miami players talk about these high stakes rec league bets in the ESPN 30 for 30 show about the Hurricanes football program, and I distinctly remember when as a photography student at Miami in the late 1990s, my black professor told us about going to his son’s pee wee league games and seeing people betting thousands of dollars.
This is some heavy stuff. It’s real out there, just not on the scoreboard.