|Wednesday, January 7
Looking for the next adrenalin rush
By Greg Garber
The elite athlete is everything we in the community of sports aspire to be: swift, strong, intelligent, confident.
Kevin Pendergast was all of those things.
He was the best high school soccer player in Connecticut and went on to become the Most Valuable Player of Notre Dame's soccer team. And then he walked onto the football team and his kicks helped the fabled Irish win the 1992 Sugar Bowl and the 1994 Cotton Bowl.
In 1995, deep in gambling debt, he bribed three Northwestern University basketball players in an attempt to fix three Big Ten games.
"Just like an athlete," Pendergast said three years later, "you get a certain rush. You are totally captivated by that game and everything in it."
In 1998, Pendergast pleaded guilty to sports bribery charges in a 21-page agreement. He served only two months in federal prison because prosecutors agreed to drop three racketeering charges that carried maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and fines of $1 million. Pendergast, in turn, testified in the prosecution of other principals in the case and addressed athletes on college campuses about the dangers of gambling.
It began, he told audiences in places like Iowa, Florida and Washington, D.C., with those familiar NCAA basketball tournament brackets.
"Technically, it goes back to filling out NCAA brackets for $2 in high school," Pendergast would say, pausing for the punch line. "Actually, I'm not being totally honest. I was the one organizing those NCAA pools.
"Football replaced the gambling thrill for me. I gambled for the physical sensation that came over me, for the intangible feeling it gave me. There's definitely a rush that comes over you."
Picture in your mind's eye, manager Pete Rose pacing in the Cincinnati Reds dugout in the mid-1980s. No longer able to impact the outcome with a bat in his hand, Rose found a way to inject those lazy games of summer with a sizzling sense of urgency. He bet on his Reds.
Rose had denied it for nearly 15 years, since his ban from baseball in 1989, but now he has come clean. In his new autobiography, "My Prison without Bars," and in an interview with ABC News that will air Thursday, Rose admits that he bet on baseball in 1987 and 1988.
Lost in the buzz that has been created -- will Rose be reinstated by baseball and, therefore, become a candidate for the Hall of Fame? -- is a fundamental question: Why?
"I didn't realize it at the time, but I was pushing toward disaster," Rose wrote in his book. "A part of me was looking for ways to recapture the high I got from winning batting titles and World Series. If I couldn't get it from playing baseball, then I needed a substitute to keep from feeling depressed.
"I was driven in gambling as well as in baseball. Enough was never enough. I had huge appetites, and I was always hungry."
Athletes like Rose and Pendergast succeeded because of their athletic skill and overwhelming belief in that ability. That confidence and love of competition, experts say, can create a toxic cocktail that is pathological gambling.
"Athletes are always betting 'I can do it better than you can,' " said Marvin Steinberg, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Compulsive Gambling in Guilford, Conn. "They're much more susceptible. `I can beat you in three-point shots,' etc. In some ways it's like black jack or craps dealers, who have a higher rate of problem gambling than the average person they face over the table. They think they have special knowledge, and they're willing to bet on that knowledge."
Steinberg, who is a psychologist, cited Michael Jordan as another example.
"He was an extraordinary competitor," Steinberg said. "He supposedly lost all that money to a golf professional because he couldn't accept that he wasn't a pro in golf. Playing baseball was a gamble for him, too. There's almost always a reality problem, an irrationality that goes along with problem gambling."
Like addictions to drugs and alcohol, compulsive gambling is about filling a void. According to Gamblers Anonymous, characteristics of a problem include an inability and unwillingness to accept reality, emotional insecurity and immaturity.
"A compulsive gambler," the organization's literature explained, "seems to have a strong inner urge to be a "big shot" and needs to have a feeling of being all-powerful. The compulsive gambler is willing to do anything (often of an anti-social nature) to maintain the image he or she wants others to see."
Kevin Whyte is executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C., an organization he describes as neutral and was founded in 1972.
"If I start talking about the risk factors shared by compulsive gamblers, athletes share a lot of them," Whyte said. "Obviously, being male, being young, enjoying risk-taking -- all of those things that make them competitive are healthy and normal and good. But if they're down, they might be unwilling to walk away.
"Another thing we talk about is the illusion of skill. Athletes often feel their skills give them an advantage, gamblers feel that way, too. The illusion is you can never eliminate the house edge. Luck, randomness is always going to be an essential feature of the game. An elite athlete, their skill has taken them so far. They feel like they have that control, that they're invincible."
In his November 2002 meeting with baseball commissioner Bud Selig, Rose wrote in his book, Charlie Hustle finally admitted he had bet on baseball.
"Why?" Selig wanted to know.
Rose replied: "I didn't think I'd get caught."
Risk-reward ratioWhile college athletics has been visited by point-shaving scandals for more than a half century, academicians have only recently begun to study the correlation between athletes and gambling.
In 1996, Francis Cullen and Edward Latessa produced a report for the NCAA based on a survey of 648 randomly selected Division I football and basketball athletes. The researchers attempted to measure risk-taking attitudes by asking athletes which of the following statements they agreed with:
While one out of four student-athletes reported gambling on games in which they hadn't played, 22 athletes said they bet on games that they play in. Those athletes, not surprisingly, had significantly higher risk scores than athletes who reported that they did not gamble.
In 1999, a University of Michigan study found that a staggering 72 percent of 758 Division I student-athletes had gambled in some way since entering college. The number for males was 80 percent. Nearly 45 percent of those male athletes said they had gambled on sports.
"There was a lot of anecdotal talk that student-athletes were getting in trouble. We wondered what the scope of the problem was -- was Northwestern an isolated incident or the tip of the iceberg?" said Ann Vollano, co-author of the study with Michael Cross. "It got a lot of attention at the time because it validated a lot of people's feelings about the extent of gambling."
Vollano, who is Michigan's assistant athletic director for compliance, agrees that athletes are particularly at risk.
"This is not a random group of humans," she said. "Everything we know about competition and winning, it bolsters a misguided belief that you would be a better gambler. It's that harmonic convergence that is so dangerous."
According to the study, 5 percent of the male athletes -- one in 20 -- admitted they had provided inside information for gambling purposes, bet on a game in which they participated or accepted money for performing poorly in a game.
"I still love college athletics," Vollano said. "I want to believe that these outside forces aren't having an effect on our games. That's why the Pete Rose incident gets so much attention."
As long as those "outside forces" have existed, so, too, has the temptation for athletes to alter the outcome of contests.
Back in 1949, University of Kentucky basketball players Ralph Beard, Alex Groza and Dale Barnstable were arrested for accepting bribes and were banned from professional sports. Two years later, a dozen players from Manhattan City College -- the NCAA and NIT champions -- and Long Island University were implicated in a point-shaving scandal.
After a flurry of gambling incidents in the early 1960s involving St. Joseph's, Iowa (Connie Hawkins) and Columbia there was a lull. Then in the 1980s, the problem surfaced again. Boston College forward Rick Kuhn and four others were found guilty of point shaving in 1981. Four years later, Tulane basketball star John "Hot Rod" Williams was accused of point shaving. The charges were dismissed, but Tulane voluntarily sidelined its basketball program for four years.
The 1990s brought another half-dozen scandals, including the one involving Pendergast at Northwestern. In 2001, Florida guard Teddy Dupay was implicated in a gambling investigation. While Dupay maintained his innocence, he nonetheless was declared ineligible, which effectively ended his college career.
Rick Neuheisel lost his job as head football coach at Washington after it was reported he won about $20,000 after picking Maryland in a 2002 NCAA Tournament pool. It is against NCAA rules for coaches, athletes or staff members to bet on any college games.
Neuheisel, claiming he was wrongfully fired, is suing the university.
It's worth noting that Neuheisel himself was an extraordinary athlete. As UCLA's quarterback, he was the 1984 Rose Bowl MVP, and later played in the USFL and, briefly, the NFL. He played only three games for the San Diego Chargers, in 1987, but holds the team's all-time, single-game record for completion percentage, 18-for-22 (81.8 percent) at Tampa Bay.
"Athletes, especially after athletics, can find themselves betting on everything," said Don Rockey, a professor at Coastal Carolina University whose Ph.D. dissertation was a 1998 study that explored athletes and gambling. "They need to be actively competitive, even when the activities are friendly or for fun. Like people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, they build up a tolerance to the adrenaline rush associated with competition."
Searching for an answerNo one knows the exact figures, but it is believed that gambling in America is a $30 billion annual proposition.
Legal betting on college sports in Las Vegas regularly exceeds $2 billion each year; the NCAA basketball tournament often surpasses the handle generated by the Super Bowl. Illegal betting, including those office pools, is said to approach $5 billion. In this age of the global village, there are more than 1,000 Internet sites that will accept your wagers.
"The NCAA is very, very concerned," Saum said. "There are student bookies, to some extent, on every campus in America. When you put that opportunity there for an athlete, when there is a method to execute a wager, it creates a dangerous combination.
"The great athletes believe in themselves, believe nothing bad is going to happen to them. Those are the same attributes that put them at risk in terms of decisions with gambling."
And, beyond the 10-minute video that student-athletes are required to watch warning of the evils of gambling, the NCAA is doing something about it. Researchers are sifting through the data generated by the most ambitious study of the subject -- ever. Some 50,000 student-athletes, representing Divisions I, II, and III and all sports were surveyed between August and November 2003. The results will be available sometime in mid-February.
While the NCAA is still formulating plans to obtain a sample of non-athletes, Saum said he hopes the study will shed further light on the sources of -- and solutions to -- the problem.
"(The) number of studies conducted, they've been limited," said Saum, speaking from the American Football Coaches Association convention in Orlando, Fla. "They've shown there's a significant problem, this one is more in-depth. Not just are you wagering, but why? If you are, how can we get you to stop? Are there links between gambling and other behaviors [such as using alcohol and drugs]?"
Saum added that testimony by athletes who are victims of gambling -- he personally oversaw a number of Pendergast's appearances -- is an effective deterrent.
"When you ask athletes who they'll listen to, they say they'll listen to someone who looks like them. Of course, they'll listen to the coach or the athletic director, but no one gets their attention like a fellow student-athlete. Pendergast has had a major impact and continues to address groups of athletes."
Rockey said he was encouraged by the news of the NCAA's comprehensive study.
"There's definitely a need for more research," he said. "Our study just involved SEC athletes. I wonder if it will show that Division I athletes are the most at-risk and it trickles down from there. I'll be excited to see the results."
Kim Beason, who worked with Rockey, is a professor at the University of Mississippi. His next project involves fantasy sports.
"Technically, it's not gambling, but a lot of the same factors are in play," Beason said. "I want to look into the participation of professional athletes. Our hypothesis is that (professional athletes) are more inclined to play fantasy sports than the normal population. I'm working with the NFL players and major league baseball unions.
"There's definitely a line between enjoying gambling and fantasy sports and going overboard and using yourself to affect the outcome of a game."
In the end, aren't Pete Rose's after-the-fact admissions just another gamble?
Isn't he really throwing himself at the mercy of the court of public opinion with a calculating eye toward the Hall of Fame? A betting man would say yes. The tone of his prose suggests he may not fully understand the damage he has inflicted on the sport he loves.
"I should have had the opportunity to get help, but baseball had no fancy rehab for gamblers like they do for drug addicts," Rose wrote in his book. "If I had admitted my guilt, it would have been the same as putting my head on the chopping block -- lifetime ban. Death penalty.
"I spent my entire life on the baseball fields of America, and I was not going to give up my profession without first seeing some hard evidence. Right or wrong, the punishment didn't fit the crime -- so I denied the crime."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com
National Council on Problem Gambling's nationwide help line: (800) 522 4700