Shaving Lather

Say it's all even, Stevin: An Ivy League economist sees evidence of frequent fixing in big-time college basketball
March 27, 2006

In hisfirst-person account of the 1994 point-shaving scandal at Arizona State (SI,Nov. 9, 1998), former Sun Devils guard Stevin (Hedake) Smith explained why it'seasy for players to cover their tracks when the fix is in. Smith didn't tankgames. He simply made sure his team failed to cover the point spread by lettingup on defense. "Yes, I shaved points, but I didn't do it by throwing wildpasses or taking horrible shots," Smith wrote. "Those are the thingseverybody looks for."

There may be othertip-offs the average fan doesn't see. The NCAA hasn't had a major point-shavingcase since Arizona State, but Justin Wolfers, an economist at Penn's WhartonSchool of Business, says a new generation of Hedakes could be fixing games allover the country. Wolfers studied the results of 44,120 Division I games playedbetween 1989 and 2005. Overall, teams that were favored by oddsmakers beat thespread 50.01% of the time.

But a startlingtrend emerged when a team was favored by 12 or more points. Strong favoritescovered only 48.37% of the time--and just missed covering (say, winning by 11when they were favored by 12) far more often than shorter favorites. To Wolfersthe deviations, which occurred in 6% of games with large spreads, or 500 timesin 16 seasons, are too statistically significant to be random. He says they'remore likely due to what he calls "mutually beneficial effortmanipulation"--point shaving.

Wolfers hasn'tdiscussed his findings with college hoops officials. But they don't contradicta 2003 NCAA survey in which 1.5% of Division I players said a teammate hadtaken money from gamblers to play poorly. "That was a real wake-up call toour membership," says Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's director of Agent,Gambling and Amateurism Activities. "We're taking a more proactive approach[against point shaving]."

This week membersof Newman-Baker's staff, along with FBI agents, will lecture players at themen's and women's regional sites about point shaving. (In past years only FinalFour teams received such visits.) The NCAA also has a representative in LasVegas keeping an eye on sports books; the NCAA is trying to set up a systemthat requires books to report suspicious gambling patterns. Says Newman-Baker,"The gambling issue comes to the forefront during the tournament." IfWolfers is right, though, it's a seasonlong concern.

TWO PHOTOSJANE KALINSKY/AP (SPORTS BOOK); PETER READ MILLER (SMITH)SPREAD CASE Smith (right) helped bettors cash in at Vegas books.