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CBS Sportsline's Sports Gambling Hatchet Job: The Prophet Provides a Refuation

By NetProphet Sports

Every year during the Final Four at least one major media outlet runs a hysterical anti-sports gambling story "planted" by the NCAA. It's a traditional rite of spring, like the azaleas blooming at the Augusta National Golf Course or the swallows returning to San Capistrano. This year's story, written by Dennis Dodd with a considerable assist from the NCAA PR flaks and posted on CBS Sportsline is especially hysterical--suggesting that the fix may be in on this year's Final Four--as well as poorly written, researched and documented. When I first read it I thought that it must be from the satirical online newspaper "The Onion", or at least an April Fool's day joke. Unfortunately, its presumably a serious attempt at what passes for journalism in today's media. As a public service, I figured that I should set about debunking it.

Here's the link to Dodd's article. I'd suggest you fire it up in another browser window so you can follow along while I rip it to shreds:

http://www.sportsline.com/collegebasketball/story/9347103

The analysis behind the story rests on some very sketchy "statistics", along with the "expert input" of an out-of-work goombah by the name of Michael Franzese. Franzese, who claims to have once been a member of the Colombo crime family, amazingly draws a paycheck from the NCAA as a consultant on the topic of gambling. In addition to providing the organization with his "expertise" on the topic, Franzese also gives "Scared Straight" type seminars to college athletes. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the veracity of a former mid level gangster as a source, but Franzese suggests that "fixed" and compromised college hoop games are as common as a Dick Vitale catch phrase. Never mind that he doesn't offer any solid evidence to support his claims--he's a "gangster" so he knows what he's talking about.

Rule number one of being a consultant is this: if you're lucky enough to draw a paycheck as one you never actually solve a problem, and certainly never let on to the people signing your checks that there isn't a problem. The challenge of a consultant is to perpetuate the "problem", or at least perpetuate the perception that there's a problem, so that you can continue to make money for doing little or no work. The NCAA, for whatever reason, has a vested interest in scaring their players into thinking that there's a seamy underworld of sinister characters looking to compromise what little integrity is left in college sports. What better way to do this than to hire a scary guy to tell scary stories to impressionable youth.

I've heard Franzese on a number of sports radio shows and as a legitimate expert on the topic of sports gambling none of his stories pass the "smell test". He offers a lot of "anecdotal evidence" for the "problem" of sports gambling and particularly fixed and compromised games, which in reality is little more than urban legends mixed with a healthy dose of quasi-gangster "shop talk" that sounds suspiciously like a Martin Scorscese script. What's really struck me about his rap is the profound ignorance he shows to the reality of the legitimate sports wagering industry in Nevada and offshore. It's like a guy claiming to be an "expert" on financial markets based on his experience in some minor penny stock exchange that no one has ever heard of without a working knowledge of what happens on the NYSE and NASDAQ. He tells a good story, but its as belivable as having Michael Imperioli in character as Chris Moltisanti from "The Sopranos" explaining the inner workings of the family's bookmaking operations. The only difference is that Franzese works cheaper and that he spins his hokum with a straight face claiming that it's "reality".

Let's forget for the time being about Franzese, the fact he's collecting a check for perpetuating the "problem" of betting on college games and his questionable credibility as an "expert" and concentrate on the statistical evidence that Dodd offers to demonstrate that fixed and compromised games is a problem in college hoops. Dodd starts his article by asserting that since the last major fixing scandal (Northwestern University) occured 11 years ago we're "overdue" for another one. This is about as profound of an example of faulty trend reasoning as you'll find--it's like saying that since we had a big stock market crash back in 1929 that we're "due" for another one. The problem is that he is oblivious to the monumental changes in the sports betting marketplace over the past decade--with more and more wagering action moving offshore to professionally run books like CRIS and Pinnacle, the likelihood of a successful fix going undetected is arguably lower now than its ever been. Throw in the increasing use of technology in the bookmaking profession, and the ability for a bookmaker to detect irregularities in action on a specific game has never been greater.

Dodd then attempts to demonstrate that fixed games are a common occurrence by employing a couple of very sketchy statistical examples. The first refers to a 2003 survey of college athletes by the NCAA that suggests that "1.3% of Division 1 players admitted to taking money from a gambler to play poorly". Without knowing the exact methodology of this study its hard to attack its specifics, but even assuming that every Division 1 player was individually polled suggesting that this is "evidence" of a widespread problem with fixed games is absurd. On the surface, 1.3% isn't much of a "problem" but it becomes even less convincing when you do a little math. If memory serves, there were 328 schools playing basketball at the Division 1 level in 2003. At 12 players per team that means 3,396 players were involved in this study. That means that assuming that this percentage is correct (not an easy assumption to begin with) that translates into 5 players who "admitted to taking money to play poorly". That'll buy you one starting lineup for one game, and certainly doesn't reflect any sort of widespread problem.

The questions about this study and the 1.3% is even more profound, however, since another way of saying that 1.3% of all D1 hoopsters are on the take is to say that a statistically insignificant number of them are. All surveys and studies are subject to some statistical inaccuracies. If you follow the polling during Presidential elections no doubt you've heard the term "margin of error" as in "this poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3% or 5% or whatever". Even the best designed, most professionally conducted research studies assume a margin of error of several percentage points. Without knowing the specifics of the study its not possible to estimate the exact margin of error in this survey, but without a doubt it would be in the range of 3 to 5%. Since the 1.3% is clearly within any realistic "margin of error", this "data" proves nothing. It's also important to understand that the five players that add up to 1.3% in this study didn't "admit" anything--they merely responded a certain way to a survey question. It's definitely within the realm of possibility that these players just marked the wrong answer on a written form, didn't understand the question, or just thought that they'd say "yes" to be funny or whatever. If these numbers yielded a higher percentage of compromised athletes I might be interested in researching the topic further, but with such scant evidence that anything crooked is going on this data must be dismissed as completely irrelevant.

The second piece of data that Dodd relies on is a "mathematical model" created by a Wharton economist that suggested that there were 500 games over the past 16 seasons that involved point shaving. Since I live in a college town and know a number of professors and grad students who work in this field of statistical analysis I made some phone calls to get some "expert help" on the topic. They concluded the same thing that I did--this model did identify situations where a player or team performed significantly more poorly than their usual form. This sort of study assumes that if player x averages 20 points per game, then goes out and misses 80% of his shot and puts up 8 points one night that the only explanation is that the fix is in. This ignores a very significant reality that any sports bettor knows all too well--since these games are played by college kids and not by machines there are countless variables that can influence performance in an individual game. It would be just as legitimate to conclude that the aberration in performance was caused by premarital sex, binge drinking, or meth addiction--meaning that its completely illegitimate to conclude that any of these "scourges" of our society are at fault. Furthermore, the notion that 500 games were "fixed" during this time frame and that Nevada sports books didn't catch *any* of them is a tough sell. Finally, as one of my "experts" concluded "you can make a mathematical model to suggest anything. Too bad none of them work".

Finally, all of these scenarios ignore an important reality that is obvious to those of us that really understand how the sports betting marketplace works. Even if you *could* compromise players or a team to the extent necessary to "fix" a game you then have to get enough money down at the right price to make it worthwhile. Since the historical examples of "fixed" games involve lower profile teams, that makes the degree of difficulty in making a fixed game work on a cost/benefit basis all the more problematic. As more and more sports wagering moves offshore to professionally run books in Costa Rica and elsewhere, the degree of difficulty in getting enough money down at the right price all while flying "under the radar" becomes greater and greater.

Dodd also reports a couple of incidents of crimes committed by college students to pay "gambling debts" and tries to suggest that sports betting is at fault. The first was a bank robbery committed in early 2005 by a class president at Lehigh University. Too bad that this didn't have anything to do with sports gambling--the kid had pissed all of his money away playing poker online: Hogan, president of Lehigh's class of 2008 and the son of a Baptist minister, is accused of holding up a Wachovia bank on Dec. 9 by handing a teller a note demanding money, saying he had a gun.

Defense attorney John Waldron said Hogan is scheduled to be arraigned April 24 in Lehigh County court on charges of robbery, theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property. But Waldron said his client has confessed and is hoping to enter plea negotiations.

"No mask was used," Waldron said. "It's not a case of 'whodunit.'"

After leaving the bank, police said, Hogan drove off with two of his fraternity brothers. Both told police they knew nothing of Hogan's plans, and neither has been charged.

Hogan got away with $2,871 but was arrested that night at his fraternity house, authorities said.

Hogan said he was $5,000 in debt from playing online poker. He later entered a treatment program for gambling addiction. (Pocono Record, 3/10/06)

The other story he cites did have something of a sports betting angle, with a Taiwanese student killing his three roommates after losing $15 grand betting on sports. The kid made the mistake of taking his roommate's advice on which teams to bet on (obviously he should have sought out a trained professional such as myself) and when the games went down he went nuts and killed his roommates. Of course, this is hardly the fault of sports betting--millions of people bet every year without a body count so to suggest that somehow his unsuccessful wagering at fault is ludicrous.

Dodd concludes his article with the stupidest suggestion of all--that the Final Four may be "in the tank". Uh...it's only one of the most watched and scrutinized sporting events in the world. It would be easier to "fix" a presidential election than to compromise this game.

One of my associates has a theory that the reason that the NCAA plants stories like this every year is to draw attention away from the big business that the event has become, with TV rights costing over a billion dollars and so much ancillary commercialization that NASCAR considers it over the top. As long as compliant, unquestioning and frankly lazy journalists like Dodd continue to be willing to carry the NCAA's water without any research or critical thought, the ruse will no doubt continue.

For extra reading I'll point you to a great article by Frank Deford entitled "What's the Big Deal: We Have Bigger Problems in Sports than Gambling". Deford is a rarity in the modern sports journalism world--he actually thinks before he starts to write. His article stands in stark contrast to Dodd's hysterical and vapid ranting:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/writers/frank_deford/02/08/viewpoint/index.html

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