Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Commentary [Print without images]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Scandal, slurs, sex … Happy Holiday!

By Lester Munson
ESPN.com

Frauds, deception, collusion, gambling, match rigging, sexual misconduct, racist epithets. Ain't sports life grand? Here's the latest view from our newly named Courtside Seat, along with a warning that some readers might be offended by the language in one of the legal documents we quote below.

The worst of the worst of the worst

What's the worst scandal in the history of sports? Here are the usual suspects, and you get to vote along with me:

• Alan Eagleson, who deceived and defrauded generations of NHL players, was charged with crimes in two countries, served time in an Ontario penitentiary, was disbarred as a lawyer and was removed from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

• The 1919 Black Sox, who conspired with gamblers to fix the World Series.

• The MLB steroid era, which tarnished the reputations of Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and many others.

• The Salt Lake City Olympics bid committee, whose vast and creative bribery purchased the 2002 Winter Games for Utah.

And now, as a gambling and match-fixing scandal metastasizes through European soccer, it might be time to add another to the list of suspects. Led by German police and prosecutors, the investigation already involves more than 200 matches in at least 10 nations, and it's growing by the hour.

Although many of the matches under scrutiny involve lower-echelon teams and leagues, investigators are looking hard at three Champions League games. FIFA (the international governing body for soccer) and UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) have scheduled crisis meetings this week to address the situation.

The 15 men already arrested are suspected of bribing players, referees, coaches and league officials. The allegations include manipulation of the outcomes of games against bookmakers' spreads and early disclosure of the identities of referees to allow gamblers to reach the officials.

Fueling the scandal is the enormous and global increase on soccer betting. A recent study in the journal Foreign Policy estimated the value of the sports gambling industry worldwide at $450 billion. The Financial Times, which has led the reporting on the soccer gambling scandal, describes British bookmakers with soccer betting clients in 200 countries.

The growth of soccer betting has produced a proliferation of new forms of bets, some of them made during the games and known as "in running" wagers. Bettors can wager on the identity of the first player to receive a yellow card or the first player in a corner kick. These individual bets are more easily rigged by gamblers than bets on the outcome of a game that would involve corrupting a number of players.

It's hard to see where the scandal will end. But, a spokesman for the UEFA acknowledges that the police inquiry includes UEFA officials who may have been involved in rigging referee assignments or the outcomes of games.

Andreas Bachmann, the leader of the German police investigation, told the Financial Times that he expects the number of suspects and the number of questionable games to continue to increase. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he observed.

Will it be the biggest scandal ever? It looks like it will certainly be part of the discussion. But for me, there will never by anything to match what Eagleson did to hockey players, their union and their fans. Day by day and year after year, he turned every transaction -- from office rent to health insurance to player pensions -- into a personal profit center. And as he did it, he successfully portrayed himself as a great, Canadian patriot. It was larceny grand in its scope, devastating in its execution and spectacular in its ultimate crash.

What was he thinking?

On Jan.19 in the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas, former NBA All-Star Antoine Walker walked up to a high roller's window and cashed a check for $100,000, using an account at a bank in Florida.

Antoine Walker
Antoine Walker's booking photo last summer. After he posted bail, he played in a celebrity golf tournament.
A short time later, Walker was back at the window, cashing another check for $100,000. And after an hour or so, another check, and then another check, until he had cashed six checks, each for $100,000, in a matter of several hours.

All six checks bounced, according to court papers filed by the Clark County district attorney.

Incredibly, this was not the first time Walker had written bad checks in Las Vegas. In July of 2008, he hit Planet Hollywood for $200,000; and a month later, he hit the Red Rock Casino for another $200,000.

Spokespersons for all three casinos declined to describe the procedures used to determine what checks they normally will cash, but all three casinos reported Walker to Clark County DA David Roger, who has charged Walker with felony fraud. He was arrested in July.

Walker's lawyer, Jonathon Powell, did not respond to several requests for comment from ESPN.com. But Walker, who made more than $100 million in his 11 years in the NBA, has reportedly paid back only $178,000 of the $1 million in bounced checks and gambling losses.

Can Walker work his way out of the situation without time in jail? He'll be back in court next Monday.

Closing time for Pitino? Not yet

Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino had some reason to believe that the coverage of his infamous closing-time tryst with Karen Sypher might itself finally be closing down. If the federal prosecutors who charged Sypher with extortion could work out a plea bargain with her, the legal affair might well have come to a conclusion by now.

Pitino
Rick Pitino is likely to get less-than-kind receptions on the road this season.
Instead, as Pitino and his Louisville team begin a trek into various hostile arenas on the road, the case against Sypher has become more complicated. After she refused to admit anything in early negotiations with federal authorities, the prosecutors added more charges last week in a "superseding indictment."

Sypher is now accused of lying to FBI agents when she told them that Pitino forced himself on her on a restaurant table after closing time and that he then forced her to submit to an abortion. On top of the charges of extortion and lying, they added another charge of lying to local police, which carries a potential jail term of 10 years.

Adding charges occasionally leads to a plea bargain and the end of a prosecution. But that's unlikely with Sypher.

Pitino now can look forward to more embarrassing allegations, as well as to arenas around college basketball where they might very well welcome him with a top-volume sound system playing Mickey Gilley's classic rendition of "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closin' Time."

The rage about "Redskins"

Washington's National Football League franchise continues to escape from legal attacks over their use of "Redskins," a term that many view as a racist epithet.

The dispute goes back at least to 1972, when Native American groups first asked Edward Bennett Williams, then the team's owner, to eliminate its name. In his letter to Williams, Harold Gross, the leader of the Indian Legal Information Development Service, suggested that Williams "imagine an NFL in which the other teams are known as the New York Kikes, the Chicago Polacks, the San Francisco Dagoes, and the Detroit Niggers."

Although dozens of universities and high schools have eliminated the use of "Redskins" for their teams, the Washington Redskins have remained steadfast in their defense of the term through 17 years of litigation. They clung to the name even as the NBA's entry in the same market changed the considerably less offensive "Bullets" to become "Wizards."

Washington's NFL team, one of the most profitable in all of professional sports, won another victory this week when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a Native American challenge to the legality of the Redskins trademarks.

The term goes back to the 18th century, when American colonial governments and private companies paid bounties for the killing of Indians as colonists moved into new territories previously home to the Native Americans. A "redskin" was evidence of a kill, and brought the payment of a reward. It remains today the only team name in sports that is based on the color of a person's skin. According to attorney Philip Mause, who leads the effort for Native Americans, it is a "term associated with violence, savagery, racial inferiority and other negative ethnic stereotypes."

The Redskins won this latest legal battle, and they have prevailed over all previous challenges. But the war is far from over. The team's victory this week is based on a legal technicality -- the Native Americans missed a filing deadline. Mause and the Native American groups are now pursuing yet another legal action that will avoid the technical problems and could finally eliminate the term from the sports landscape.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.