Friday, June 19, 2015

How Mobsters Could Influence Sports

With a strong caution that this is simply an informed guess based on the knowledge of author Pete DeVico, consider this possible scenario involving Tim Donaghy, the former NBA referee who bet on games and pleaded guilty to federal felony conspiracy charges for allegedly passing along inside information:

Perhaps the guy liked to gamble and got in hock with a bookie. The bookie might have been inclined to sell Donaghy's marker -- his debt plus points, or interest -- to a mobster. The mobster could have made Donaghy an offer he couldn't refuse, to satisfy the debt by providing inside information and influencing certain games.

"I can't prove this. It's strictly speculation. But this is how it works," said DeVico, a Brooklyn-born expert on the American mob and author of "The Mafia Made Easy: The Anatomy and Culture of La Cosa Nostra"

Even if that is not how things played out with Donaghy, DeVico believes similar situations arise. That's alarming.

Forget steroids. Forget stealing opponents' play signals. Forget obscene salaries. Fixing games, manipulating the outcome for the sake of gambling, is the worst thing that can happen to any sport or sports in general.

Imagine the collective disgust, the stampede of former fans, if it became widely accepted that organized crime and gambling interests swayed the final scores of a number of games.

What merit would there be in Steelers town to dissect Ben Roethlisberger's psyche and decision-making if we believed even one NFL game official was on the take and would call interference or holding penalties to reach a predetermined outcome -- or worse, if we suspected certain linemen or receivers or quarterbacks were ready to botch plays or feign injuries on purpose?

The good news, according to DeVico, is the American mob is a shadow of what it once was, reduced in many cases to the level of loosely organized street thugs. The bad news is that does not mean La Cosa Nostra can't or doesn't have an undesirable hold on some sporting events.

In the past, DeVico points out, the mob was strong enough to run cities as big as Chicago and stiff-arm the FBI.

In the future, sports gambling could be the vehicle that drives the Mafia to reorganize and regain some level of power and influence. There's a cold shiver for you.

DeVico, whose book traces the origins of the Mafia in Italy and its history in the United States, said all it takes is an opening. "As long as the mob can exploit you, they will," he said. "They're masters of exploiting weaknesses."

It's probably farfetched that high-paid pro athletes are on the take for money. It would be something darker, DeVico said.

That could be digging up information about individuals' gambling or drug problems, steroids use, even infidelity. It's a simple formula: Help us, or we'll expose you. And there's a second formula: Expose us, and you'll be sorry.

DeVico grew up knowing wiseguys and, judging from his book, has done exhaustive research on the American Mafia (there's even a short section on its history in Pittsburgh), so perhaps he too quickly sees conspiracies. Or maybe it's just that most of us are naive or lack the proper cynicism.

In any case, DeVico suspects possible mob ties in many instances of impropriety in sports.

With boxing and horse racing, at least in years gone by, there's little question outcomes have been influenced.

DeVico can't help but wonder about the various point-shaving scandals in college basketball, the ongoing investigation into game-fixing with Toledo football, and the recent bust of a gambling operation run by former Penguins player Rick Tocchet and a New Jersey policeman.

What stood out to DeVico about that last case was the news the ring handled more than 1,000 wagers for more than $1.7 million in a 40-day period. "There's no proof of mob ties -- there never is -- but that's a lot of money," he said. "Somebody's going to know about this."

He didn't mean just the authorities.

Even Pete Rose, the disgraced former Cincinnati Reds star and manager who is banned from baseball for betting on games, makes DeVico curious.

"Who knows, but all the signs were there -- he supposedly always won when he made bets of $10,000 or more, he was accused of tax evasion," he said.

Let's not panic. There's no reason to think sports are corrupt to the point of stinking. Things might even be cleaner than they used to be -- for now. And if it makes football fans feel any better, DeVico figures NFL games would be difficult to fix because of the number of people involved.

Not much comfort, though, is it?

Thanks to Shelly Anderson

Lillian Vernon Online

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