by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

One of the fascinating byproducts for the handful of us employed at TGS was the opportunity to learn about the sports handicapping business from a true legend. Our founder, Mort Olshan (left), had in fact been in the industry long before TGS published its first edition in 1957, having earlier been involved in producing the weekly Minneapolis Line while working under the iconic “Wizard of Odds,” Leo Hirschfield.

As could be expected, Mort saw it all throughout his decades in the business, including the rogue instances of point-shaving, match-fixing, and other forms of corruption related to sports gaming. But Mort, who knew a thing or two about the subject after doing some exhaustive editorial work on Claire Bee’s Long Island U and the Blackbirds’ infamous basketball point-shaving scandal in the 1949-51 time period, had a hard time buying into most sports wagering conspiracy theories, which he believed were thrown around far too loosely, especially by aggrieved bettors who would routinely believe the “fix” was in on the games they wagered upon...and lost.

In fact, Mort devoted space in his well-received 1975 book, Winning Theories of Sports Handicapping, to the subjects of the “conspiracy” and “fix” and other elements related to the shady sides of sports wagering. (Check out Chapter 11, entitled “The Fix: The Loser’s Favorite Scapegoat.”) And those passages remain as good a read today as they were 37 years ago. Even with the advances in technology that have since greatly altered the dynamics of the sports gaming marketplace, Mort’s words on the “conspiracy” subject from decades ago still ring true.

We mention all of this because we can only imagine how Mort might have reacted to the headline story in USA TODAY’s sports section last Wednesday that not only suggested that the NFL’s replacement referees were targets for corruption by sports gamblers, but also that refs were in fact very likely to be corrupted. Citing “experts” that included an NFL handicapper and a pair of administrators from Gambling Studies programs at Rutgers and UCLA, respectively, the featured story devoted considerable space to possible scenarios in which these “experts” detailed the likelihood of corruption. The piece also granted an extremely wide berth to its hand-selected NFL handicapper, who seemed to have no doubt that chicanery was inevitable as long as the replacement refs were on the field. “There really is an economic model here that not only makes it possible,” said this chap, “but very likely that someone will be corrupted.”

Moreover, that bold claim was mostly supported by the administrators from the programs at Rutgers and UCLA, who, among other things, suggested that the assessment was “fair” and that they would be “fascinated to find out just how much time the NFL took to find out if these guys are at risk to be approached by organized crime.” The only mild disclaimer to the conspiracy theory in the USA TODAY story came briefly in the final paragraph of the piece, when it was noted that no discrepancies in early-season NFL betting patterns had been noted by Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Perhaps that last bit of info would have been better served to appear in the opening paragraph instead. Better yet, that revelation should have made the whole piece unnecessary in the first place.

Mort was always careful about broaching the conspiracy/fix/point-shave topics, which he knew were always subject to distortion by the gaming public. And since we knew him so well, we can assume that were Mort still with us, we suspect his first reaction to last week’s featured story would have been to cancel his subscription to USA TODAY for such a clumsy attempt at manufacturing a controversy when none really exists. Especially in regard to such a sensitive issue as sports wagering corruption. As sure as the day is 24 hours long, without some concrete evidence, Mort would never float weak accusations similar to those presented in the USA TODAY piece last Wednesday.

We’re not naive enough at TGS to believe that sporting events are immune from corruption. Having grown up in and around the horse racing industry, we are prone to being cynical ourselves. And it’s always possible that a referee, whether a regular or NFL replacement official, or counterparts in basketball, baseball, soccer, and other sports, can be compromised. The Tim Donaghy (left) tale in the NBA is still fresh enough in everyone’s mind to serve as a reminder that a rogue referee can go crooked. And we’ve seen enough rather recent instances in world soccer to be further reminded of the potential consequences. Moreover, in some of our research for various book projects, we have stumbled onto evidence that suggests some famous games (basketball in particular) over the past half-century might have been tainted as well. But until we can corroborate the evidence, we’re certainly not going to go public with any pronouncements.

Which is why, for the potential seriousness of the subject matter, the shallowness of last week’s USA TODAY piece is staggering. It is akin to assuming a temporary bank employee would be “very likely” to be involved in a heist because he has short-term access to the vault.

We suspect it is far safer to assume that the NFL’s replacement referees have a sense of decency about them that would preclude getting involved in a one-time payoff and risk potential consequences (heavy fines and jail time among them) that could destroy the rest of their lives. Apparently this angle escaped those involved in the USA TODAY story.

Like all football officials, these replacement referees have other jobs and careers as well. Most, in fact, are probably gainfully employed. That they previously worked in the lower divisions of college football hardly suggests these fellows are hayseeds, either.

To suggest among friends that these chaps are “likely to be corrupted” is one thing; to proclaim so in a national forum such as USA TODAY is quite another.

And to cite an instance of a replacement referee posting a photo of himself wearing a Saints jersey before working a New Orleans game as evidence that the refs “weren’t really screened out,” as the UCLA co-director of the Gambling Studies also stated, in fact probably suggests just the opposite, as the league pulled that ref from the Saints game. We suspect the NFL did plenty of background checking on the replacement officials. No one figures to be hurt more by a rogue referee than the league itself, which we can guarantee goes to great lengths to make sure any of its referees, replacement ones or otherwise, are aware of what is at stake should the integrity of the game be compromised.

We would suggest to USA TODAY’s Robert Klemko, who wrote the story last week, as well as to the NFL handicapper referenced in the piece, plus those referenced faculty/administrators from the Gambling Studies programs at UCLA and Rutgers, that they instead each find a copy of Mort’s Winning Theories of Sports Handicapping and make sure to read Chapter 11, to not only educate themselves a bit further on the subject, but also to get a sense of how difficult it is for a player or ref to properly execute any mischief. The UCLA connection who mentioned the potential of “organized crime elements” approaching the replacement refs would also probably find interesting Mort’s statement of fact that it’s the tinhorn gambler, not the bookmakers or organized crime elements who have historically financed such operations, who profit from the shenanigans.

The most gripping takes of corruption and espionage, whether it be in sport, as was Tim Donaghy, or in the intelligence sphere, as were Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, are so because they really happened; shallow pieces such as USA TODAY’s from last week don’t qualify. Especially since that stating anything is so merely because it is possible, as last week’s USA TODAY story suggests, is in fact being patently illogical.

After all, we suppose it’s also possible we could have a date with Sofia Vergara later this week. It’s just not very likely.

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