The news of college basketball fixes that broke last week has been six months in the making. It will take at least six more weeks to unwind. There will be:
•Exposure of more bribers and players.
•Involvement of a number of southern state universities.
•Involvement of players and teams in both major postseason tournaments: the NCAA and the NIT.
March 27, 1961
On Monday of this week, New York City detectives were sent to the University of North Carolina and Philadelphia's LaSalle College to bring in several players for questioning. By Monday, too, it developed that three students at the University of Connecticut—not one—had been questioned. They are Captain Pete Kelly and Glenn Cross of the basketball team and football co-captain Bill Minnerly.
The office of New York District Attorney Frank Hogan has been investigating college basketball for two years, but work on this specific case began last September 24. That was the day a New York gambler named Aaron Wagman was arrested in Florida after trying to bribe a University of Florida player to fix a football game. Wagman was released on $20,000 bail but was put under surveillance. He led the detectives all over the country, until the scope of his operation became clear.
Wagman rarely dealt directly with the athletes he bribed. He had "contact men," nearly always fellow students of the athletes, on a dozen campuses. Such a student would call Wagman in New York when he and the player were ready to fix a game. Wagman, who had little working capital, would then go to a big-time gambler and borrow enough money to pay the bribes involved and to make his own bets. Wagman then sent $2,000 to his contact man, to be split evenly between him and the player. The player was also instructed to act out an agreed-upon signal just before the game started—say, bending over and tying his left sneaker—as final evidence that everything was set. By that time, Wagman and his gambler friend would have their bets down.
To understand how the betting took place, assume that the game Wagman fixed was between Team A and Team B. Team A was favored to win by 10 points. That meant bookies would accept your bet if you thought Team A would win by more than 10 points. Wagman had told his bribed player—on Team B—that his team must lose by at least 15 points. Therefore he bet, confidently, on Team A, giving 10 points.
As the money Wagman and his gambler friend—and possibly his friends—bet on Team A poured in, the bookies would alter the line to protect themselves. Team A would become an 11-point favorite, then 12, then 13, until the bookies took the game "off the boards," which meant they would take no more bets. Wagman had made bets at all the point spreads, and if the fix worked, as it usually did, he won them all.
The New York detectives were just completing their case against Wagman and another fixer named Joseph Hacken last week when they discovered something that forced them to act quickly. Wagman had applied for a passport, was obviously preparing to leave the country.
They arrested Wagman and Hack-en immediately. At that time they had solid cases on only a few fixed games and bribed players. One was Wagman's fix of the Connecticut-Colgate game played at Hamilton, N.Y. The other was Hacken's fix of a Seton Hall-Dayton game played in Madison Square Garden. The Seton Hall players involved were Art Hicks and Hank Gunter. They had agreed to lose the Dayton game by more than the six-point spread. They did; Seton Hall lost by 35 points.
Hicks and Gunter were already in trouble with Seton Hall authorities. They had been disciplined for a number of serious infractions of campus rules. The night of the Dayton game both left Madison Square Garden, though they had been instructed to return with the other players by bus to Seton Hall. They were looking for Hacken. When he failed to show up, Gunter rushed back to the Garden and caught the bus in time. Hicks continued the search for Hacken but failed, and he spent the night in New York. When he returned to Seton Hall the next day he was suspended by his coaches for a brief period.
There is an important difference between the Wagman-Hacken techniques and those used to fix games a decade ago. Then the fixers and gamblers decided precisely which games would be manipulated and gave the orders to their bribed players. Wag-man, contrarily, sat back and waited for one of his contact men to call. The contact man, in turn, waited for the player to come to him and say that he wanted to pick up some quick cash. This assured Wagman that any fix arrangement would be entered into eagerly and that he could count on a full "effort" by the player.
Wagman and Hacken worked independently of each other, as do a number of other fixers yet to be arrested, but they exchanged information, and occasionally doublecrossed each other. Though both borrowed to finance their deals, neither was a small-time operator. They were the master technicians; they had the apparatus that made the fixes work.
Hogan's men would have preferred to continue their investigations until they had solid evidence to back up their own certain knowledge of dozens of fixed games and the complicity of many players and go-betweens. They hope that what was for them premature exposure of the fixes may actually help. Since players who tell all to a grand jury get special consideration, a number of bribe takers are expected to come forward.
But the district attorney has not decided how lenient he will be with the bribed students who cooperate in providing evidence against the bribers. In similar circumstances 10 years ago those who cooperated were let off with suspended sentences; those who persisted in lying about their own complicity went to prison.
It is shocking that college players, with the previous scandals still fresh in everyone's mind, should yield to the temptation of a fast and easy dollar. But the reasons are plain to any sophisticated observer.
When a school uses all manner of sly and under-the-table inducements to recruit a player, when it allows him to slide through college on a ridiculously easy academic schedule, when alumni slip him pocket money, buy him clothes and generally fawn on him to keep him happy, when, in short, a player realizes that everyone around him is winking at the rules of proper behavior, he is prepared to take further steps in the wrong direction. As a matter of fact, by accepting the blandishments of college and alumni, he is already committed to wrongdoing, and the only question remaining is how far he feels he can safely go along that path. Those players who accepted the bribes of gamblers obviously felt that shaving points was safe enough.
It is just as obvious that much of this corrupting atmosphere could be swept away by strict enforcement of recruiting rules and elimination of academic double standards—one for athletes, one for other students. It has to be faced that this would lower the near-professional standards of play of the top basketball schools, in fact would (in football parlance) de-emphasize college basketball as a big-time sport. But college basketball does not belong in places like Madison Square Garden—where, as Roger Kahn points out in his profile of Ned Irish (see page 39), professional gamblers can be spotted any basketball night, filling telephone booths and acting as if they owned the place.
But let no one think that deemphasizing the sport, eliminating the academic double standard and removing games from the atmosphere of big-time commercialism will be enough to 'solve the problem.
College athletics demand closer supervision. The NCAA, like supervisory bodies in various pro sports, should have a security arm whose members are perpetually on the lookout for possible trouble. The mere common knowledge that such a security force exists would have an inhibiting effect on youngsters tempted by an easy buck.
There is no sense in clucking over what a sad thing it is to have to spy on college students. It has now been clearly demonstrated that this is necessary. With the tremendous amount of betting on all sports there always will be a gambler looking for the kind of edge he can get by bribing a player, a coach, a referee. Professional sports officials know this and guard against it. The colleges must do the same.
There are many who hold that the basic cause of a scandal of this sort is the whole moral climate of our times, the prevalence of a something-for-nothing philosophy that affects us all. Even if this is true, it is not an argument against having a police force. Let's improve that climate, by all means. Hopefully, we can improve it to the point where we no longer have to have policemen. Until that day, college sport needs a cop on the beat.
The NCAA, governing body of college athletics, has in the past displayed more eagerness to bury scandals than to expose them. If it fails to act with vigor now, emergency measures will have to be considered by those who have the interests of the game at heart.