Tagliabue-who served as the NFL's top executive from 1989 to 2006-should know. He played in a fixed game. And he knew it was an important issue worthy of bringing to the attention of Congress.
The prospect of gambling-fueled point shaving was front and center when the former NFL commissioner arrived on Capitol Hill on September 12, 1991 in support of federal legislation to stop the spread of state-sponsored sports betting beyond the borders of Nevada and a few other states. As recounted in Congressional testimony recently obtained by VICE Sports, Tagliabue described his experience while playing college basketball for the Georgetown Hoyas:
The infection Tagliabue described was seemingly everywhere at the time (more on that later). But as a researcher with a focus on archival records, Tagliabue's revelation presented a challenge: could I reverse engineer team records from more than 50 years ago and pinpoint the exact game Tagliabue was alluding to?
The ex-NFL commissioner provided two critical clues about the game: it took place at Madison Square Garden, and the Hoyas won.
Tagliabue played three full seasons for Georgetown, graduating in 1962. During his three years-1959-60, 1960-61, and 1961-62-records indicate the Hoyas played three games at MSG. The first was a January 9, 1960 contest against Manhattan. Georgetown lost 90-82. On March 2, 1961, the Hoyas beat New York University 92-69 in the last game of the season. Georgetown lost a December 15, 1961 game against Manhattan 79-73, a contest Tagliabue missed due to a Rhodes Scholar competition.
Of the three games at Madison Square Garden, only the March 1961 game against NYU resulted in a Georgetown victory. Did one or more players on NYU's team try to lose on purpose to collect on bets or bribes?
The 1960-61 season was mixed for the NYU Violets. The team finished 11-10, a huge disappointment following the squad's appearance in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four (not a typo!) the previous year, a season that saw NYU beat Connecticut, West Virginia, and Duke in the NCAA tournament before being upended in the national semifinals by a loaded, championship-winning Ohio State team that featured Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, and a benchwarmer named Bob Knight.
Joe Goldstein's excellent four-part series for ESPN Classic on college basketball gambling scandals is consistent with Tagliabue's recollection of certain NYU players being involved in fixed games. Two well-researched books connect a vast number of dots and further reaffirm Tagliabue's testimony. In The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball, author Charley Rosen cites no fewer than three NYU players being involved, including one "who had to make a shot in the wrong basket in order for a game to come out right." Al Figone, in Cheating the Spread: Gambling, Point Shavers, and Game Fixers in College Football and Basketball, similarly pinpointed at least one NYU player as being ensnared in the scandal. NYU's role in the gambling scandals was even pegged as a reason the basketball team was mothballed from 1971 to 1983.
In related testimony before the U.S. Senate three months earlier, Tagliabue explained-citing first-hand experience-how the game fixers easily got their hooks into college players:
The March 2, 1961 Georgetown-NYU game apparently referenced by Tagliabue is just one example of pervasive game manipulation during the era. It got so bad that Congress intervened in 1964, passing the Sports Bribery Act and, in turn, criminalized match-fixing on a federal level, where previously it had only been banned by disparate state laws. .
However, even after the statute was enacted, related scandals moved from Boston College to Tulane to Arizona State to Northwestern to the University of San Diego. Just last month, the University of Toledo sports bribery case finally ended with a handful of additional guilty pleas, including one football player who had previously pled out and admitted fumbling on purpose during a bowl game as part of the scheme.
Tagliabue's experience more than five decades ago highlights how vulnerable sports can be to game-fixing. Current sports league czars are seemingly well-aware of the issues related to sports corruption and perceptions thereof. Roger Goodell, in a court document filed August 10, 2012 in the yet-to-be-resolved New Jersey sports wagering case, stated: "If gambling is freely permitted on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing."
Of course, neither Tagliabue's insight nor Goodell's court filing will do much to mollify hardcore Detroit Lions fans. There will be no follow-up Congressional hearings on a certain non-call earlier this month.