Every once in a while, a single comment in a book or article prods us to think very differently about a broadly discussed issue. One that comes to mind is a statement in Steve Coll’s essay in the online version of The New Yorker magazine. That essay, entitled “Is Chaos a Friend of the NFL,” posted on December 26, 2012, discusses two issues that have the potential to damage the NFL’s brand and economics over the long term: the “bounty” issue and the injuries that have led to many cases of long term damage to present and former players, including dementia, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, suicides and murders.
The comment that caught my attention was about the “bounty” issue, that is, the practice of coaches or players paying other players for success in injuring opponents so badly that they had to be removed from games or, worse yet, unable to play in future games. The practice is bad enough in creating injury risks for individual players and is offensive on that basis alone. Indeed, it becomes another source of the second problem, causing long-term injuries to players in order for a team to win a game or to secure a better position in an individual season.
However, Coll points out another risk of not aggressively trying to punish and prevent the practice:
“Yet if pay-to-hurt is as endemic as Vitt reportedly suggested, it may eventually lead to game-fixing schemes by professional gamblers. At least a quarter of a billion dollars is wagered weekly on N.F.L. regular-season games. Big dollars, weak refereeing, and corrupted locker rooms are a recipe for organized crime.”
This is the logical consequence of a system in which a great deal of money is made through gambling, as opposed to the money by the entertainment value of sports. All sports police a number of practices to prevent gambling from altering the events on which the bets are placed. Historically, gamblers have sought to alter results by causing players to withhold effort or to make mistakes that enabled the other team to win.
This was the case in the famous Black Sox scandal in 1919, in which eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of receiving money from gamblers to take steps to enable the Cincinnati Reds to win the 1919 World Series. There was a basketball “point-shaving” scandal in the early 1950’s in which seven colleges, led by the national championship team from the City College of New York, accepted money from gamblers to reduce the point differentials between themselves and opponents to enable gamblers to win bets.
Similarly, there have been many cases in boxing in which boxers were suspected of “taking a dive,” that is, intentionally losing to enable gamblers to win bets placed on opponents. The case in which the influence of gamblers was broadly suspected was the first round knockout of Sonny Liston by Muhammed Ali in 1965. The punch that resulted in the knockout did not seem to be that powerful, and it happened at a point in the match at which Liston was relatively unscathed.
In thinking about the “bounty” issue, Coll makes the point that if the NFL does not crack down on bounties, the small rewards coaches give players or teammates give other teammates will be dwarfed by the bounties gamblers will provide to several players in a position to injure opponents. Many intentional injuries would be penalized during the game, but if the financial reward is large enough, a player might be willing to accept the penalty, especially if his team is ahead and not in danger of losing the game as a result of the penalty. What has to frighten the NFL is that there are superstar players who, if injured, can have a strong outcome on a game, such as a star quarterback like Peyton Manning or a star running back like Adrian Peterson of the Vikings. These players are noteworthy because each suffered a season-ending injury in 2011, which severely damaged their respective teams’ seasons.
The “bounty” could have a much bigger impact if it results in a team being weakened relative to its opponents over future games as well. There are certain kinds of injuries that may not take a player out of a game, but may make him less mobile, but still able to play. These kinds of injuries are often not as well publicized, which gives the knowledgeable gambler an edge, particularly in a game that is otherwise expected to be close.
Think of last year’s Super Bowl, when Rob Gronowski, a star player for the New England Patriots, was well enough to play, but not at peak condition. On the last drive, it is possible that, had he not been injured, New England might have scored the winning touchdown. The game was that close.
Events like the Super Bowl are particularly susceptible to interference from gamblers. The amounts of money wagered are exceptionally high. The games are often close ones, in which a single injury during a game can make a big difference in the outcome. The coach is likely to keep an injured player in the game, because there is no next game about which to worry.
There is far more at stake relative to the rules of professional football than simply the future health of players or the economic well-being of the teams on which they play. The integrity of the game is at risk if the NFL does not figure out a way to reduce the overall level of violence.