One finding in the survey reminded me of an old sports editor, Earl Cox. He had grown weary of my obstinance and said, "You gotta learn to bet."
This was at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, home to the Kentucky Derby and a short drive away from horse racing’s most hallowed breeding grounds, the beautiful bluegrass hills around Lexington. But I was a kid from the cornfields of Illinois. I knew almost nothing about horse racing and not quite that much about betting. The first time I went to Churchill Downs, I asked a friend why it took so long between races.
"The bettors need time to study the next race," he said, "and time to get back to the windows to throw away more money."
I never had so much money that I wanted to throw any away, let alone more of it. Besides, the only gamblers I knew were in the movies and they usually were getting shot holding aces and eights. But my boss insisted that I educate myself. So one day I placed a $2 wager in each of the card’s nine races. My horses ran slowly, very, very slowly
My first thought was, I had thrown away $18. My second thought was, I’ll expense it.
Thus, "$18, Churchill Downs, betting losses."
To say the sports editor did not take kindly to the kid expensing his race track losses is to say Secretariat could run a little. "But you told me to bet," I said, and Earl Cox said, "I didn’t say use real money."
Maybe once or twice since, I have bet on a horse race if that race happened to be the Kentucky Derby. Otherwise, I have never made a bet on a sports event.
It’s not that I’m a moralist about gambling.
I am an idealist about sports and journalism.
Gambling has no place in the games, no place in the newspaper. It has corrupted games and the people around them in ways we know, in ways we suspect, and in ways we will never know. The National Football League does football better than anybody else does anything, and one of the things it has done well is create the perfect gambling vehicle, a game once a week – gives the bettors time to study up, to get back to the windows. And those Monday night games? You think there’s more action on MNF than there would’ve been for just another Sunday game? Those injury reports ordered up early in the week? You think those are for mommies worried about little Freddy’s boo-boo?
Mainstream news organizations should not publish point-spread information. Let the bettors get it from tipsheets. Gambling on sports is, after all, illegal outside Nevada. Why would any newspaper promote an illegal activity? I have heard sports editors rationalize printing the point spreads by saying it’s a way to show which team is favored to win. They also have said that, at some point, everything is gambling information.
Seldom am I moved to borrow from the lexicon of the late New York Daily News columnist Dick Young, but in this case I will make an exception and say, "Bullspit." If you want to show a favorite, put an asterisk by the team’s name. And I will also say to sports editors: Don’t go all disingenuous on me, they pay you the big bucks to know the difference between news and gambling chatter.
The worst news in sports journalism lately comes from the Penn State survey.
It reported that 41.1 percent of respondents gambled on games.
It also said that 4.6 percent gambled on games they were covering.
"A journalistic no-no," said Marie Hardin, who directed the survey’s research.
They should be firing offenses. If "objectivity" is an impossible standard in the first place – though we can and must strive for it – it is impossible to even pretend to objectivity when you have a bet riding on the news happening before your eyes. That day at Churchill Downs when I bet on nine races, I never saw the winners because I was looking up the track, wondering when in hell my nags would break a sweat.
I call them firing offenses, but the Penn State survey also reported that no newspaper or newspaper organization had created any guidelines about gambling in any code of ethics. It said that as long as 24 years ago the Associated Press Sports Editors organization was criticized "for its failure to address the complicity of sports journalism in promoting gambling . . ." The APSE’s Ethics Guidelines, as now published on the group’s website, still does not mention gambling. The APSE does, however, stomp its collective feet in outrage at the idea that a sportswriter might use a private tennis court without a story idea in mind.
The Penn State survey was done by Hardin’s researchers at the school’s John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. I thought the 41.1 percent number of reporters gambling was the most notable piece of the report. But Hardin quickly changed my mind by saying, "To me, it was that the reporters who said they gambled on events they covered also admitted that it could cause problems with their reporting." That number was an astounding 69 percent.
As bad as that is, it gets worse. The reporters most likely to gamble are the oldest, most well educated, and, presumably, highest-paid of the respondents. Those people "strongly.agreed" with the idea that sports departments operate on a "different" (read: lower) ethical plane than other news departments. At the same time, they "strongly agreed" that gambling hurts their objectivity.
In other words, many of the best sports reporters are willingly engaged in an unprofessional activity that confirms the lower ethical standards of a sports department.
That kind of circular thinking –standards are lower, so let’s lower ourselves to those standards – has crippled sports departments forever and earned them the epithet of "toy departments." Yes, the games are fun, let’s have fun; I’ve argued that as recently as last week. But sports is also a significant piece of popular American culture. The games, their people, and the societal issues they raise should be studied seriously. We should understand the craft of athletes and coaches who work public wonders. We also should understand the ways the games have become industries reaching into everyone’s pocketbook for billion-dollar stadiums, $7.50 beers, and $140 million defensive ends.
I have written dozens of sad, sad gambling-in-sports stories, and I’d guess that most of them began with the idea that the games are just games. No one ever thought the games would destroy their marriages, their homes, their lives. They could control the gambling. Sure. It was just a game. No college basketball player ever thought it much wrong to get down with the campus bookie to win by 10 instead of 7. It was just a game.
No, it’s more than a game. It’s a mirror held up to our lives. To treat a game as a gambling trifle corrupts more than just the game. It corrupts us.
For a copy of the Penn State survey, e-mail Marie Hardin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.