It's Monday morning, and bettors have been sleeping off their losses from weekend pools, parlays and side bets. This is what they wake up to: Michigan by 22½ points over Wisconsin in college football, trumpets The Latest Line, a daily column the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate sells to more than 60 papers. Oakland by 11 over San Francisco in pro football. Montreal by 1½ to 2 goals over Washington in pro hockey. Cleveland by 2½ over Houston in pro basketball.
By week's end newspaper sports sections are veritable swamps of odds, picks and betting tips. Some papers enlist so-called expert analysts, such as Jimmy the Greek and Bud Goode's computer. The Philadelphia Inquirer carries "best bets" from 10 different handicappers, while the Philadelphia Daily News runs a daily column called Vegas Vic's Hot Line, offering tips on how Vic would bet certain games. The Boston Globe's weekly supplement, Sports Plus, carries a two-page spread devoted to football gambling and featuring Larry Merchant's syndicated picking-the-pros column. A New York Post Friday column is the most explicit: it's called The Post's NFL guide for the bettor.
Sports betting is every bit the multibillion-dollar industry that big-time sport itself is, and no medium has been quicker to adapt to that phenomenon than newspaper sports sections. It's now an open question whether their most avid readers are fans or bettors. "Come into my office and answer the phone the day we leave the line out," says Kerry Slagle, executive sports editor of The Chicago Sun-Times. "We get thousands of complaints."
Because betting information generates readership, very few sports editors fail to run betting lines on college and pro contests, and many supplement them with picks and tips. Those few who resist—the editors of Newsday and The New York Times most prominent among them—point out that gambling on any sports other than horse racing, dog racing and jai alai is illegal outside of Nevada. Should newspapers be in the business of gambling, they ask, and illegal gambling at that?
December 10, 1979
It's a question worth debating. Some of the arguments against the practice of printing betting lines are: It helps those people who can least afford it to lose money. It contributes to Organized Crime—nearly all such betting is handled by bookies—and thus funds other criminal activities. It puts pressure on athletes and tempts them to shave points.
Blanching at his own sports section's Playing Football (which could also be called Betting the Pros), Washington Post columnist Dave Kindred argues, "Newspapers are not in the business of promoting illegal activities. The argument that if we don't run that, the other paper will, is morally baseless. The same goes for 'there's a great interest in betting.' Sports is not about gambling."
Says Le Anne Schreiber, sports editor of The New York Times, "As long as gambling is illegal, running odds and picks puts the paper in a difficult position. I think it should be avoided, even if it seems like sticking your head in the sand."
And that, say betting-line advocates, is just what their opponents are doing. "People want information and that's what we're in business for," says Buddy Martin, executive sports editor of the New York Daily News. "It's a fact of life that people gamble. We don't contribute to it." Newsweek columnist Pete Axthelm says, "Gambling is basic to the enjoyment many people get out of sports. It's hard to imagine people who aren't gambling, or who gamble a little, going into it in a big way because of the papers. In a lot of cases it's just people betting against each other. I don't think running odds corrupts athletes. College kids are thinking of pro contracts—why should they take the risk of getting caught in a fix? And I don't buy the argument that papers are contributing to Organized Crime. Most bookies are middle-class businessmen who don't exploit people. They know your situation and often won't let you bet more than you can afford. The real villain is government-run legalized gambling such as Off-Track Betting, which feeds on the poor and takes out the profit through high taxation."
Some observers take a middle ground. "We don't emphasize the odds with a big head, news story or column," says Bill Shirley, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. Instead, the Times runs a few inches of betting lines on its agate page. Newsday columnist Stan Isaacs makes a distinction between pro and amateur sports. "Newspapers shouldn't run the odds on college sports. Putting that kind of pressure on kids is unfair. But pro football is a bettor's sport." These days Newsday runs no gambling information, but allows its pro football writers to predict scores on Sunday morning.
Inconsistencies often crop up in both extreme positions. Even papers that refuse to provide gambling information as a special feature may mention in a news story that, say, the Steelers are 3½-point favorites in the Super Bowl. On fall Fridays The New York Times' Bill Wallace lists official odds in a preview of the coming Sunday and Monday pro football games. "I'm not entirely comfortable with that." says Schreiber.
Moreover, a stern rejection of gambling in all its ramifications can lead to unfortunate side effects. NCAA executive regulation 2-15-B states in effect that tip sheets or publications that carry advertising for tip sheets are to be denied press credentials for NCAA championship events. The result of that edict was the banning from the 1979 NCAA basketball finals of representatives of Basketball Weekly, a well-regarded and newsy trade publication that carries gambling-sheet advertising.
When Bowie Kuhn recently barred Willie Mays from working for the Mets while he represented a (legal) gambling casino, point spreads and odds were certainly not involved. Nevertheless, it was strange to read the remarks of those sportswriters who approved Kuhn's action—"protecting the integrity of the game"—even while their papers were abetting illegal gambling. As long as newspapers run odds and tips—and, for that matter, self-promoting pick-the-score contests—these sportswriters appear to be sanctimonious when they argue the legality of anything, much less when they deplore gambling scandals.
A fair summing-up might be: 1) no matter how it is rationalized, newspapers shouldn't promote illegal gambling; but. paradoxically, 2) odds can be legitimate information even for the non-gambling sports fan. After the analysis, after the quotes, after the injury update, a newspaper reader can be aided in assessing the difference between opponents by noting the betting line. Perhaps odds should be a part of news stories, not printed as separate betting lines, and should be restricted to those events which are important enough to merit genuine previews. Touting the fact that the St. Louis Blues are 1 to 1½ goal favorites over Edmonton is of no use to anyone but gamblers. The same, of course, can be said of picking scores or betting tips. If people want to lose money, they don't need alleged experts telling them how.