September 3, 2009

Groping In The Dark

Is it ethical for sportswriters to bet on games? As Jim Moriarty notes, it'd be a lot more worrisome if they actually knew what they were talking about

In a "Casablanca" moment, according to Editor and Publisher, citing a survey conducted by a Penn State group, an awful lot of people who cover sports bet on them, too. They seemed shocked, shocked that gambling was going on back there.

While I confess to my own intolerance when it comes to anyone who actually has an impact on the outcome of a sporting event -- be it players, coaches or referees -- betting on those events, I'm less exercised by those who write about a sport having a little wager on the side. To begin with, I don't buy the notion that an office pool colors the way someone covers their beat. But, be that as it may.

One presumes the great ethical breach is that the reporter has some knowledge that gives him an edge at the betting window, like insider trading. Their access, which as anyone will tell you is not what it's cracked up to be, has allowed them to profit unethically. But, as every coach from Bob Knight to Hank Haney and every player who ever put on a uniform or pulled out driver when he should have hit 3-wood will be only too happy to tell you, those of us who write, blog, bloviate, pundify and twitter, don't have the foggiest idea what the hell we're talking about. Hey, if we knew Tiger Woods had a broken leg going into Torrey Pines, you think we'd have kept that little tidbit to ourselves so we could double down on Rocco Mediate?

To illustrate further, let me site two instances from my own corrupt past.

Some 20 years ago while I was taking photographs of college football, I had an acquaintance who at the time was an employee of a very large, unnamed monthly golf magazine. This acquaintance was rumored to enjoy the occasional wager, particularly on football. Relying on my crack insider information of two teams, let's call them the Tiggers and the Wolves, I pointed out to him that the Wolves had beaten the Tiggers three straight years, were unbeaten and untied coming in and were getting something in the range of 12 points, though, mercifully, I forget the exact number. It seemed like a lock, though not one that I, myself, parlayed. Well, by the end of the first quarter, the Tiggers were so thoroughly destroying the Wolves not even three-times a dozen would have covered the ultimate gulf between the two of them. My colleague has since passed on to his eternal reward but I feel certain his final breaths were reserved for cursing me and everything I stood for.

My other brush with my own dishonorable behavior strikes a little closer to home. I bet on golf. It was 1995, if memory serves, and The Open Championship was at St. Andrews. Of course, part of the ritual of being at The Open is trundling down to the nearby bet shop one afternoon before play begins. I confess to having very little understanding of each-way bets and the like but I did know how to put a few quid on a man's nose. That year Tom Watson was, I believe, 50-1 or some such and I saw a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an aging (even then) superstar who might yet win his sixth claret jug.

As my confederates and I emerged from the dingy little shop of horrors, a seagull that eyewitnesses have assured me was the size of the Hindenburg, blotted out the sun as it passed over my head and relieved itself like a plane dropping fire retardant on a California wildfire. Half of my body appeared to have been carved from the White Cliffs of Dover. I immediately reached into my pocket, took out the slip predicting Watson as the Champion Golfer of the Year and tore it into tiny pieces.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is unethical for someone who covers horse racing to also bet on it but I'm not sure I could ever completely trust a writer who wouldn't. Call me old school, and unlucky.