The Sports Bribery Act: A Look Back At Attempts To Aid Integrity

Posted on May 30, 2018

Threats to sports integrity have been known in the United States for more than a century, despite sports league fears that there will be an earthquake of corruption that follows legalized sports betting.

With cheating and corruption of sporting contests dating back to ancient Greece, it is unlikely that legal sports betting will move the needle in any meaningful direction on the Richter scale of corruption. Corruption is already present in sport.

Having been victim of the most prominently cited example of match-fixing in American sport, with the Black Sox World Series fix 99 years ago, Major League Baseball has always been steadfast in its opposition to sports betting until recent months, when they have warmed on the subject. That’s despite former commissioner Bud Selig’s view that gambling was an “evil, [which] creates doubt and destroys your sport” and concerns that a legal market will amplify corruption of sport.

The federal government has previously dabbled in protecting sport integrity. On at least two previous occasions, there have been bills passed prohibiting sports bribery. While these bills were important first steps, they only reflect a portion of the threats facing modern sport.

1947 corrupt influence on athletic contests in D.C.

Coming on the heels of five Brooklyn College basketball players (known as the “Brooklyn Five”) admitting that they took money to lose a game to Akron University in 1945, the corrupting influence of money on sport caught the eye of politicians in Congress who sought to protect their home away from home. In an era prior to the “Home Rule,” which gave D.C. some autonomy for self-government, Congress played a more active role in legislating the District.

On July 11, 1947, it became unlawful in the District of Columbia “to pay or give, or to agree to pay or give, or to promise or offer, any valuable thing to any individual—” to intentional influence any enumerated individual to influence a sporting contest (the bill’s focus was on influencing to lose).

It also became illegal for anyone to accept anything in exchange for intentionally influencing the outcome of a sporting event. The briber faced a punishment of between one and five years of imprisonment and a fine of not more than $10,000, whereas the recipient of the bribe faced up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

In the hearings leading up to the passage of what was then referred to as bill House Resolution 3515, Joseph O’Hara, a Republican member of the House from Minnesota, in discussions centered on severity of punishment noted:

“We felt that we were passing this bill as a deterrent and we wanted the sentence severe enough so that it would be a deterrent to the gamblers and others who resort to bribery.”

The 1947 statute would mark the first time that Congress would take on match-fixers, with the second coming a little more than 15 years later.

1964 Sports Bribery Act

In a hearing held hours before the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas, members of the House Judiciary Committee heard extensive testimony on a series of bills aimed at targeting business practices linked to organized crime.

The hearing, which focused on sports bribery included submissions endorsing the proposed bill from:

  • Bobby Dodd, Georgia Tech Athletic Director
  • George Trautman, President of the National Association of Professional Baseball leagues
  • Members of the NCAA counsel
  • The National Association of Basketball Coaches
  • The NBA
  • Testimony from NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle

Prior to Rozelle’s testimony, Representative William McCulloch of Ohio would testify that:

“American athletes are being subjected to guile and temptation by some of America’s most despicable element [sic], the bribers, the fixers, and gamblers. Though only a comparatively few of the tens of thousands of honest professional and collegiate athletes of this country have succumbed to the mounting pressures and enticements brought to bear by the gambling fraternity, the increasing number of sports scandals, uncovered in recent years have been a source of chagrin and dismay to all of us.”

The Wire Act?

Rozelle’s testimony began with him praising the Wire Act as being “successful in greatly diminishing the amounts wagered on professional football.” Rozelle liked that the Sports Bribery Act contained penalties that he viewed as a meaningful “deterrent” to efforts to fix NFL games.

The NCAA sent President Robert Ray to lobby for the proposed bill, who cited the need for a federal statute to address sports bribery given the disparate laws across the country, including a complete absence of relevant laws in at least a handful of states. The Bribery in Sporting Contests Act would pass on June 6, 1964.

The deterrent effect in action?

In the more than 50 years since passage of the Sports Bribery Act, it has resulted in a few more than 15 reported decisions (not all court cases result in a reported decision).

The sport which has had the greatest number of Sports Bribery Act cases has been horse racing, with at least seven decisions. But, the most famous Sports Bribery Act case gained its notoriety because of Ray Liotta’s depiction of its orchestrator, Henry Hill, in Goodfellas.

Though the film makes only fleeting reference to the 1978-1979 point-shaving scheme at Boston College, Hill’s connection and decision to turn state’s evidence sealed the fate of Jimmy Burke and resulted in a 20-year prison sentence, Burke was named Jimmy Conway and played by Robert DeNiro in the film. Hill, in a 1981 Sports Illustrated article, described the scheme that would lead to the convictions of many of his co-conspirators as one that began with players eager to make a little money, but which devolved.

Hill mentioned reminiscing about one phone conversation with B.C. player Rick Kuhn: “I reminded him that he couldn’t play basketball with broken fingers, or something to that effect. Sometimes words have a way of getting things done.”

So…is it working?

The Sports Bribery Act was meant to serve as a powerful deterrent against what lawmakers perceived as how match-fixing happens. The question that has emerged is whether America is actually deterring match-fixers?

Hill illustrated an important failing of the Sports Bribery Act when he discussed breaking Kuhn’s fingers. Bribery is only one of many tools in a fixer’s toolbox. Where bribery fails or is perceived as ineffective, fixers have resorted to extortion or blackmail.

There is a strong likelihood that match-fixing in the United States has gone underreported for decades. With legal sports betting emerging, efforts have begun to reexamine and begin to modernize state-level statutes including giving leagues the ability to sue match-fixers in some of the proposed legislation. This approach, while modern (and possibly inspired by the prosecution of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy), still appears to lack mechanisms such as whistleblower protections that can encourage reporting of crimes.

There are many questions that remain as to how the involvement of the federal government in legalized sports betting will look, but one area where the interference of the feds makes sense is in disrupting match-fixing, which is not only frequently interstate in nature, but often international. A modernization of the Sports Bribery Act would almost certainly be cheered by the leagues, legal books and gamblers alike.

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John Holden

John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.

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