Calling All College Sports Fans: Point Shaving Is A Problem, And We’re Not Paying Nearly Enough AttentionPosted by Chris Johnson on June 6th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
College sports’ problems cannot be hemmed in around one single issue or theme. There is a vast array of various issues eating away at the very core of the intercollegiate athletic landscape, loath as we are to discuss them all in equal measure. The usual discussions about the usual problems tend to fall under one of two hot-button umbrellas: the NCAA and conference realignment. Mentioning either tends to boil the blood of all fans; not even the dividing lines of team or conference or regional loyalty can’t break up the unifying hate. Conference realignment talk has cooled off in recent weeks thanks to the ACC’s landmark grant of rights deal, which should halt the league-shifting turnstiles among major conferences. The NCAA knows no relief from outside vitriol, though, and you can rest assured the scorn will continue to rain down as long as “amateurism” and a crookedly impractical rulebook and Mark Emmert remain visible parts of the organization. We talk about these things a lot because they make it easy to do so, and because we – fans, media, whoever – understand the moving parts, the underlying tectonic plates, the incentives. We get this stuff. It’s practically straightforward, and morally persuasive (and if you have a lot of friends that enjoy watching and talking about college sports, almost by necessity a part of your cocktail hour conversation arsenal) to shake our firsts and raise a hellstorm about.
It’s time we pay more attention to another issue: point shaving. You’ve heard of it before, yes? The supposed-to-be subtlety of intentionally performing below your capability to artificially doctor a game’s final score for a financial reward. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. An ill-intentioned money-hungry go-between reaches out to an influential player on a low-profile mid-major team, offers a relatively small sum (say, $1,000) to back-rim a few jumpers and commit a couple not-unintentional turnovers, just enough to stay under the posted point spread. The player, a typical college student with typical college student financial constraints, happily agrees to consciously muddle his performance. Who wouldn’t take that deal? With little rhyme or reason for unprompted external suspicion, and a near-impossibly onerous burden of proof to demonstrate a sustained effort to manipulate a given game’s point spread, of course I’ll make that happen. That shudderingly simple and coherent line of thinking is what led San Diego star Brandon Johnson, the perfect real-life fit for the prototypical point shaving target-manna athlete, to cast his lot with bookies and an assistant coach with nefarious motivations and intentions.
Small schools and little leagues, cases similar to Johnson’s, are one convenient avenue. BCS conferences are a riskier operation, if only because of the increased media attention and more vigilant officiating involved. The mechanisms for detection, such as they exist, are heightened. Former Auburn guard Varez Ward couldn’t keep his scurrilous game-fixing quid pro quo out of plain sight, and was suspended in February 2012 along with teammate Chris Denson for his apparent deliberate point-spread manipulation of two SEC conference games (at the time, the reason given for Ward and Denson’s dismissal was a “violation of team rules”). The reactive media fallout was constrained, just as it was throughout the slow trickle of details surrounding Johnson’s incident. Ward’s alleged misconduct had since been under review, and on Tuesday was met with the expected punitive response: an indictment for conspiracy to defraud and bribery in sports competition. Ward faces five years of prison on two counts, an irreparably tarnished public record and reputation, and will likely use up the rest of his collegiate eligibility under the supervisory clutches of prison, parole or house arrest. Ward jumped at an immensely tempting possibility, and forever damaged his professional livelihood.
He won’t be appealing to the NCAA, or trying to disprove his alleged high school days-involvement with a money-wielding third party. Ward is dealing with a reputable organization with real rules, and a vastly powerful and basically unimpeachable enforcement arm. Ward’s alleged crime – not a ticky-tack secondary violation, but real-life criminal line-stepping – doesn’t involve some ethically dubious and dumbfoundingly outmoded structural philosophy (amateurism). This is a court of law, and Ward’s costly actions leaving him at the mercy of its often unforgiving penal wherewithal.
At exactly what point does a case like this transcend laughable bylaws and overstretched NCAA staffers? When does prison cell and knowing violations of competitive integrity rise above impermissible benefits and homogenized bagel condiments and misappropriation of “university water” for washing a car? When does the vastly under-recognized prevalence of manipulated point spreads mean more than North Carolina’s impending departure to the Big Ten or UConn’s oh, so terrible resigned realignment wheel plight?
Point shaving is a real and scary thing, and its mind-blowing implications – the possibility of the games you spend hundreds of dollars to watch, attend and purchase way too much alcohol for, being decided because an under-the-table preconstituted handshake to artificially deflate the final outcome changed the financial stakes for one individual – aren’t discussed with anywhere near the gravity and invested concern they deserve. The mechanics of a typical point-shaving agreement are not difficult to untangle. The simplicity itself is what allows players like Ward and Johnson to be gotten to in the first place. This stuff happens far more often than anyone would like to acknowledge, and yet we keep our eyes and short attention spans fixed on the same issues, working up a lather over Emmert’s power-tripping enforcement measures or a particularly interesting comment from a conference commissioner at an alumni breakfast. The NCAA is broken. Conference realignment is ripping rivalries apart and destroying the good old days and shaking college athletics to its core. Institutional point shaving, the not-at-all outrageous potential for a systemic and well-entrenched system of collusion to manipulate games taking root, flies above all that. Because when you spend time questioning the authenticity of the game itself, the supporting structure disintegrates. The NCAA doesn’t exist. Conferences collapse. It all crumbles in a heap, college sports, and that possibility, however microscopic, should scare the living daylights out of anyone who stops to consider how simple it must be for a student-athlete to reject competitive integrity for individual gain, to consider the enormous potential benefits and ignore the menial possibility of being found out.
Nobody really knows how frequent this goes on, or how lucrative the financial rewards being offered in the transfer. If we opened our eyes to the possibilities, and really drilled into how bookkepers and athletes engage, maybe we would know. Then we could go back to cursing the NCAA and shaking our fists at the vagaries of conference realignment, and not live a worrying second about the dark unknown of the integrity of the most basic unit of college athletics. The actual games. Once you lose that, the presumption of an even playing field, what else really matters?