Six years ago, in a scandal which wrecked the careers of 30 college athletes and seriously damaged the game itself, it was revealed that gamblers had influenced players to fix games—paying them off in hundreds of dollars while collecting in tens of thousands. There was a hopeful quiet after the 1951 disclosures, but recently the rumors of fixes began again. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Chicago correspondent, Robert H. Boyle, heard that a particularly ugly story was circulating among gamblers. The word was that a certain referee in the Missouri Valley Conference had been "fixing" college basketball games, in cooperation with a betting ring.
Boyle began his investigation. After confronting officials, questioning witnesses and experts—sometimes receiving cooperation and sometimes not—he was able to establish these astonishing facts:
Charges of corruption have been made against a referee in one of the nation's major basketball conferences. These charges have not been made openly. Similar charges were made against the same referee when he worked previously with the Big Ten Conference, and they were not openly investigated. This time, the reports have appeared so serious to the presidents of the University of Wichita and St Louis University and to the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference that the referee has in effect been suspended from officiating in the conference for the rest of the season. He has been deprived of some of his means of livelihood, although the commissioner pretends that his continued inactivity is due to sickness and shows no inclination to conduct an investigation of the charges as they stand.
The policy of acting on rumors in private but ignoring them in public is not the right one. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED believes that these particular reports, and any others like them, should be investigated in the interest of a great and growing sport.
March 4, 1957
John K. Fraser, a basketball referee in the important Missouri Valley Conference, has been relieved of his duties by Conference Commissioner Arthur E. Eilers. Eilers told me this virtual suspension would only last until Fraser recovered from a neck injury (left). But Eilers assured two university presidents that Fraser would referee no more conference games this season.
Charges by gamblers and their friends that Fraser had been "fixing" major college games were brought to the attention of Dr. Harry Corbin, president of the University of Wichita, after the Wichita-Western Kentucky game at Wichita on Feb. 13. Last week the university gave SPORTS ILLUSTRATED this statement:
"Official information regarding the assignment or withdrawal of basketball officials necessarily rests with the commissioner's office of the Missouri Valley Conference in St. Louis. Rumors of excessive gambling did come to the attention of the president of the University of Wichita last week. A report of these rumors was made to the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, in cooperation with the president of St. Louis University, on Friday, Feb. 15, 1957. It then became a matter within the authority of Artie Eilers, Missouri Valley commissioner, to act upon."
Dr. Corbin later added some crucial facts: "The rumors I heard about gambling did not name any official. However I did hear a fragment of a rumor regarding Fraser. I reported the rumors to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and I then went to St. Louis where, after a conference with the Rev. Paul Reinert S.J., president of St. Louis University, he and I told Mr. Eilers of the rumors.
"Mr. Eilers said he had heard similar rumors, and that as a result of the rumors and the report made by Father Reinert and me he felt that for the best protection of the conference and for Fraser's protection he was withdrawing Fraser from all further MVC games this year."
Lester Rosen, who is in charge of the U. of Wichita's public relations, amplified Dr. Corbin's remarks in a conversation with our Wichita correspondent, Don Granger:
"Dr. Corbin and I talked again. We agreed that we ought to include some information in addition to that statement this afternoon. You see, he notified the FBI of the rumors.... He did this because he felt that the rumors indicated the activities might be of an interstate nature. He did not notify the local police....
"Dr. Corbin was referring to the kind of gambling that isn't a matter of chance—certainly not of the friendly $2 type. He felt we should take a look at it for a variety of factors, including officiating. And let me emphasize that Ralph Miller [Wichita coach] did not have anything to do with Fraser's being replaced for the Wichita-Bradley game on Feb. 18."
In a series of conversations with me last week the commissioner wobbled a bit in his version of the facts, as these excerpts will show:
Boyle: What have you heard?
Eilers: Well, we have heard a lot of rumors.... We hear various rumors coming from various individuals and certain sources...rumors to the effect that he [Fraser] was associated with various sources.
B: Did you ask Fraser about this?
E: I asked Fraser and he denied it—a flat denial.
B: Just what did Wichita and St. Louis report to you?
E: I can't divulge everything that went into that report.
B: Well, why did you take him out of the games?
E: It was smart to take John out of there, in fairness to the conference.... I think the accusations are false because I just have all faith in the officials, that is the reason I work with them.... I thought it would be good for his own benefit not to work on Saturday or Monday in fairness to him and because of all these accusations going around.
B: Would you let Fraser referee another conference game now if he wasn't sick?
E: Yes, I would let him referee if he wasn't sick.
This, of course, is in contradiction to the assurances given Dr. Corbin and Father Reinert.
Fraser has been in trouble before in his career as a basketball referee. His difficulties began with the Big Ten Conference, to which he filed an application for appointment in April 1953. He gave his age as 39, his height as 6 feet 1 inch, his weight as 197 pounds and his occupation as construction worker.
In the spring of 1956 Big Ten officials were told by friends of gamblers that Fraser had "influenced" a game. These officials were "unable to check out" the allegations, but admit they took the tips seriously enough so that they shed no tears when Fraser left their roster of referees.
When Fraser applied for the Big Ten job, he cited as character reference Arthur Eilers, and he now gave his full attention to the Missouri Valley Conference job. It was the responsibility of Big Ten officials to pass along the allegations about Fraser, and this responsibility was assumed by Walt Byers, NCAA Executive Director in Kansas City. Asked this week by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED what he had told Eilers about Fraser and what had been Eilers' reaction, Mr. Byers declined to comment.
In any case, Fraser has been regularly employed last year and this by the Missouri Valley Conference as one of its top referees.
The allegation now made by gamblers is that eight games in which Fraser worked were "fixed" at the behest of a betting ring (a ninth failed). These games are described in detail in the box on the opposite page.
In the 1951 basketball scandals the fixes were effected by players. But a referee can also influence the "point spread" in a game, which is the margin of victory. Basketball betting is widespread on a basis of the point spread. In any given game, team A is made a favorite by the bookies to win by a specific margin. The spread is principally determined by the team's logical chances and also by the flow of money wagered. If you bet on team A which is favored to win with a point spread of minus-8, this means that your team A has to win by at least 9 points. Obviously, a dishonest referee can win a bet for someone else by unfairly calling fouls and violations on one side so that the point spread is affected.
It takes an estimated $50,000 in betting to "move" a spread nationally in a major game by as much as 2 points. The gamblers' story is this: a point spread on each big game is established in the morning by bookmakers all over the country. When the smart money later makes a move on a given game it increases or decreases that point spread. While shifts in spread are not uncommon, they have been happening with suspicious regularity in the Missouri Valley Conference. In nine such cases (all were not strictly conference games) it turned out that the referee at that game was John Fraser (the Missouri Valley Conference does not release the names of its officials before the game).
John Fraser also runs a saloon called the Hitching Post in Godfrey, Ill. There he was found by Reporter-Photographer Art Shay last week. He was, surprisingly, fully aware of my investigation, and greeted Shay with oaths and obscenities, ending angrily:
"I'm just about a nervous wreck this week. Somebody from Minneapolis called me, the commissioner called me. What are you Jew————-up to? Somebody's gonna get hurt if they don't let up on me. You don't have a——thing on me—nobody does. Basketball is my whole life. I never bet on a basketball game in my life."
No matter whether Fraser's wrath is fueled by innocence or guilt, Commissioner Eilers clearly owes his referee, his conference—and basketball—a thorough investigation.
HOW A REFEREE COULD FIX A GAME
The nature of the game and the rules by which it is played make basketball, of all the major sports, peculiarly vulnerable to the fix by a dishonest official. In every game literally dozens of "judgment" calls must be made which will cancel scores made by one team and/or lead directly to scores by another.
By rule, basketball is a non-body-contact sport. Every time there is body contact, the referee must first decide whether or not a foul was committed. If it was, he must decide who was at fault, and call it. (In today's college games, points made as a result of fouls often constitute more than a third of a team's total score.)
For example, if player A dribbles in for a layup and makes contact with player B as he shoots, the referee should call a foul. If the shot goes in and the referee also decides that player B was guilty of blocking, the result can be as much as 3 points for team A. If, instead, the referee decides that player A was charging, the result can be no points for team A and 2 points for team B—a swing of 5 points on a single play. And the referee's split-second judgment—honest or otherwise—is the single deciding factor.
Other judgment calls can decide possession of the ball which, obviously, determines which team may score in the immediately subsequent action. One of the most important—and debatable—of these is the "traveling" call, which is made when a player in possession of the ball takes two complete steps before releasing it. Unfair calls against a team for traveling can knock it completely off stride and seriously influence the outcome of a game.
Another difficult judgment area is the five-or six-player battle for a rebound. Who blocked out whom illegally? Who pushed whom? How long should the referee allow the melee to continue before he calls it a no-decision held ball? The dishonest official can make his decisions secure in the knowledge that at worst he may be accused of an error in judgment.
This last brings up the question of how the actions of a dishonest official can be detected. In every game each coach is ready on the instant to argue judgment decisions against his team. But even if he feels he has been treated unfairly many times through a game, a coach will rarely protest to league or conference officials about a referee's conduct. One reason is a desire to avoid being tagged a chronic complainer or cry baby. Another is a reluctance to inspire in his players a sullen, resentful attitude toward referees. But most important is the fact that ever, if he can prove, with films of the game, that the referee did indeed make many bad judgment calls, all he will have proved is that on this particular night the referee made some mistakes. Unless a group of coaches in a league joins in mutual suspicion of a referee and analyzes the films of many games to find a pattern of judgment decisions, nothing will ever result.
HERE IS THE GAMBLERS' STORY
Changes in point spreads aroused suspicions in these nine games, refereed by John Fraser. In all save one, "smart money" won heavily
The Missouri Valley Conference includes schools from Houston to Detroit. In list below, Ohio State, Yale, Seattle, Oklahoma City and Western Kentucky are not MVC members. These were non-conference games. All other teams are members.
Dec. 8 St. Louis at Ohio State
Abnormal amount of money bet on Ohio State. State went from minus-6 points in opening line to 8½ at closing.
St. Louis scored 23 field goals; State scored 25. But State won by 20 points (74-54) because 23 fouls were called against St. Louis, only 10 against State.
Dec. 27 Yale at Bradley
"Very big move." So much money bet on Bradley that it moved to minus-16 before bookies took the game off the boards.
By first five minutes, Yale's top rebounder (Robinson) had four fouls against him, later fouled out. Bradley had 47 foul shots, Yale 30. Bradley won 72-49.
Jan. 7 Tulsa at Houston
The big bettors first backed favored Houston, moved the line to minus-6½. Then they poured it in on Tulsa.
Tulsa won by only one point, 65-64, but the big money was safe by 5 points, since the gamblers would have collected even if Houston had won by up to 4 points.
Jan. 11 Seattle at Oklahoma City
"A real late move." Oklahoma City at opened at minus-7, big money pushed it minus-5 by betting on Seattle.
Gamblers won all bets though they backed the underdog (Seattle 70, OCU 59). OCU actually scored more field goals (25) than Seattle (23), but foul calls gave Seattle 31 tries to OCU's 16.
Jan. 17 Houston at Bradley
Big money bet on Bradley, which opened the favorite at minus-14, moved to 14½ quickly and went off the board at 17.
Three Houston starters fouled out of game. Bradley won by 17 points (81-64). The gamblers collected on all bets they had made ranging from minus-14 to minus-16½.
Feb. 2 Detroit at Drake
Detroit opened the favorite at minus-5½ but the gamblers bet on Drake and kept Drake betting until the game went off the boards.
The gamblers won all bets when Drake won 83-65.
Feb. 4 St. Louis at Drake
The only suspected fix that didn't stand up St. Louis opened at minus-9 before singing off.
St. Louis had to win by more than 9 at least to pay off some of gamblers' bets. Total of 25 fouls called against Drake gave St. Louis 44 tries (as against 18 and 32 for Drake), but St. Louis won by only 6—78-72.
Feb. 11 Detroit at Houston
Gamblers bet on Houston, which opened at minus-5 pushed it to minus-9 before signing off.
Houston went off to early lead, led by 14 at half and won 82-72. Gamblers collected on all bets.
Feb. 13 Western Kentucky at Wichita
Wichita opened the favorite at minus-8. Gamblers bet heavily on W. Ky. until line fell to minus-5
This was the biggest coup of all as Western Kentucky won 82-76. Foul calls were unimportant here. The gamblers were almost never in danger of losing.