Match Fixers Have More Tools To Manipulate Sports Betting Outcomes Than Just Bribery

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Match fixing tools

This is the second in a two-part series at Legal Sports Report that explores match-fixing; what it is, how it happens, and what can be done to prevent it. Part I focuses on types of match-fixing and discusses some common threads across match-fixing cases. Part II looks at some recent U.S. match-fixing incidents and discusses how match-fixers induce cooperation. Part I is here.

A brave new world for sports betting

For the better part of the last quarter century, the professional and amateur sports leagues of the United States have publicly praised the near-nationwide ban on sports betting as necessary to protect the sanctity of sport.

The likelihood that legal gambling will create a bull market for match-fixers appears unlikely, legal markets tend to be fairly robust against manipulation over time, but there also exists an ability and willingness to involve law enforcement should concerns arise.

While we wait for a legal sports betting market to emerge, it is necessary to understand how match-fixing occurs. The principal federal statute that addresses match-fixing narrowly only implicates bribery related fixes, but other means of coercion that manipulators use include blackmail and extortion.

While many presume that match-fixing is always a non-consensual activity, there is no definitional requirement that a match-fixer needs to be unwilling. Indeed, it is possible for individuals to act on their own as lone-wolves, or even to engage in a criminal conspiracy exclusive of bribery, blackmail or extortion.

Bribery and sports betting

Most of the suspected match-fixing incidents in the US, since the passage of PASPA, have occurred in games under the oversight of the NCAA. Bribery involves the intentional giving, receiving or soliciting something of value in exchange for performance of an action outside the normal scope of duties. Bribery is most often thought of in the context of public officials, but is often a means of first approach in the match-fixing context. Match-fixing conspiracies are often fluid: where the carrot of bribery is ineffective, match-fixers may resort to the stick of extortion or blackmail.

Bribery has often been the means used to manipulate the outcome of NCAA games. NCAA games have a particular vulnerability because the players do not receive salaries and may be viewed by some match-fixers as more approachable.

A point-shaving scheme at the University of Toledo, in the mid-2000s, involved the use of bribery. Businessman Gary Manni and a co-conspirator approached Toledo Rockets football and basketball players and for as little as $500 were able to convince up to six players to shave points. In 2015, Manni would be convicted and sentenced to 70 months in federal prison.

It was a similar story for Brandon Johnson, the University of San Diego basketball’s all-time leading scorer, who was recorded on a wiretap describing to a co-conspirator that he did not attempt a shot at one point in a game because it would have cost him $1,000.

The NCAA’s “amateurism” model creates an environment that is likely more susceptible to match-fixing, not present in the major professional sports because of the salaries paid to pros. While bribery is a common means of putting the fix in, match-fixers have alternatives as well, including blackmail and extortion.

Blackmail and extortion

When bribery fails, match-fixers may turn to other more threatening devices. Though related (in fact many states treat these as the same offense), blackmail and extortion are often thought of slightly differently, with blackmail often being the threat to reveal a secret that would be damaging to someone’s reputation or one that would harm a relationship. Whereas extortion involves a threat to use force in harming someone, usually the target, but can also include the target’s family.

There has been some misguided speculation that because professional players’ salaries in the major US professional leagues are so high match-fixers would not be able to get them to participate in a scheme, but match-fixing involves much more than just bribery.

An example of the fluidity of match-fixing schemes is prominent in the case of Stevin “Hedake” Smith, who shaved points while at Arizona State in the mid-1990s. Hedake, who liked gambling, had found himself indebted to a campus bookie for more than $10,000, but was offered a way out of his debt and the opportunity to earn some extra money. Campus bookie Benny Silman told Hedake that he would wipe his debt if the point guard would ensure that the Sun Devils failed to cover the spread.

The scheme devolved as Silman became concerned that Hedake would not be able to convincingly shave the amount of points required, so a second Arizona State player was recruited. When the players failed to fulfill their end of the bargain, allegedly costing various bettors more than $1 million, Hedake was met at his apartment by bettors looking to recoup their losses. Smith would write an “I owe you” that would not be cashed as he was sentenced to a year in prison and three years’ probation in 1999. Failure for Hedake to participate in the scheme may have resulted in revelations of his gambling activities potentially costing him his remaining eligibility.

Beware of Dr. Boudreaux

Former NBA-player Tom Tolbert during an interview with Jim Rome, vividly described a warning he received as a player about a mysterious Dr. Boudreaux, which illustrates how even professionals can become susceptible to match-fixing:

Tolbert: “What this guy would do is he would hang out with basketball players or football players like college players, get to know them a little bit. Take them out for a couple of beers. He would like slip them a mickey. Then he would bring them back to their hotel room, right. They’d be passed out. They would wake up in the morning with like Polaroids of him standing over them with like his crank in their face and blackmail them….”

While Tolbert acknowledged he had never encountered Dr. Boudreaux and could not separate fact from urban legend, the use of so-called honeypots are a ploy that have been employed by some match-fixers. The basic idea behind a honeypot trap is that often an athlete will be seduced and either photographs, or in some cases simply threatened, with the publication of the affair if an athlete does not engage in the desired fix.

Athletes being found in compromising situations is more common than many people realize. In 2015, former NHLer Jaromir Jagr was the victim of a blackmail attempt (it did not implicate match-fixing) by an 18-year-old model who threatened to release photos of him in bed. While large salaries may make professional athletes less susceptible to bribery-related match-fixing, those athletes remain vulnerable to other types of coercion.

What can be done about match-fixing?

If the NCAA desired to reduce the risk of players falling for the types of match-fixing schemes that have occurred most frequently, the organization could begin paying the athletes. Until NCAA athletes are paid and all officials are employed as full-time employees, they are potentially susceptible.

It’s been learned from the Toledo Rockets fix, it does not take significant amounts of money to orchestrate a manipulation that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Athletes also need to be aware of threats and in particular how they can be marked and exploited through their online presence.

In addition to education, combatting match-fixing requires proper resources for law enforcement to act on information. Unlike the private sports leagues who have designs of spearheading the integrity battle, law enforcement has powers granted to them by the state to conduct investigations with the power of warrants and subpoenas, two things absent when integrity is outsourced to private industry.