It was 1992, just minutes before a Big East basketball game.
As the national anthem began, only two reporters were left in a back media room of the Carrier Dome.
One of the reporters paced and scowled at the other writer. He needed the phone and some privacy.
“The guy was telling his wife how much he missed her,” he remembered. “’Sweetie, I miss you, love you’ and all that. I was sweating and wanted to snap his neck, because I was afraid I wouldn't get the bet in. I mean Syracuse was a Pick ‘em over UConn. Syracuse was going to kill them.”
Fast forward four years to the first Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson fight: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
columnist Jeff Schultz was in Las Vegas when the fight was announced. He remembers walking out of a sportsbook, shocked after seeing Holyfield listed as a 22-to-1 underdog.
Schultz was tempted to take a stab on the long shot, but, remembering a decision he made not to bet on events that he covered, he passed.
His friend and fellow journalist, however, did not.
A few months later, Schultz and his invested colleague were back in Vegas sitting next to each other on press row to cover a convincing Holyfield upset.
“Boxing is the worst deadline sport; the fights end late, so you’re literally writing throughout it,” said Schultz. “When they stopped the fight, the writer stopped typing, stood up and put his hands in the air like ‘touchdown’ then sat back down and continued to type. He made a lot of money on that fight and, to his credit, he wrote a great fight story. I just saw him recently and still give him crap about it.”
Now skip ahead 12 years to Super Bowl XLII: A wire service reporter is preparing to cover the Giants-Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium, when his editor calls.
“He wanted to know if they had announced whether or not the roof was going to be open or closed. He bet big and was going to play the over/under on the game-time temperature,” the reporter remembered.
These aren’t isolated incidents.
surveyed 50 sports writers from across North America. Forty-six percent currently bet on sports, and 84 percent know a member of the media who bets on sports.
“That’s a little bit higher than I thought it would be, mainly because I didn’t know that many of them had enough money to bet,” Schultz said with a chuckle.
More than one in four had bet on an event or game they covered, and 18 percent admitted to placing a bet from the press box.
“Not only have I placed bets in the press box, but I've also played online Texas Hold 'Em, too,” one writer responded in an email.
Ignoring Pointspreads: Bad Journalism
You’re taught in journalism school that money is a part of every story. So when sports writers ignore pointspreads, they aren’t doing their job fully. Plus, they’re likely not reaching possibly the most passionate part of their audience.
“The most interested people are going to be the people who bet money on the game,” Darren Rovell, CNBC’s sports business reporter
and host of SportzBiz: Game On
on Versus told Covers.com
. “It’s almost like you have to be well-versed on pointspreads because it’s part of it. If you’re a radio host, you basically have to talk about it.”Rovell’s twitter feed
is full of 140-word nuggets about huge parlays and bad beats. He’s done features on professional gamblers and touts. He knows his stuff, yet doesn’t bet.
“No one has ever told me, ‘do not gamble’” he said. “But I’m just uncomfortable doing it, because, especially with Twitter, I want to make sure every one of my comments is totally objective and not because I was pissed that I lost money.”
A journalist’s objectivity, however, is pretty subjective in some cases.
For example, several of the surveyed writers who answered that they didn’t bet on sports added qualifiers like:
“That's not to say we don't have home run pools, no-hit pools and the like, but nothing beyond that,” one reporter added.
“Only an informal pool during the Stanley Cup finals in which everyone covering the game paid five bucks and pulled a name out of a hat. The guy who had the winning goal scorer took the pot,” another one wrote.
Those writers didn’t believe their objectivity was swayed by participating in a seemingly harmless press-box pool. But you have to wonder if the winner of the home run pool wouldn’t describe a mammoth blast, while others called it a solo shot to left field.
In addition, how many members of the media have players that they cover on their fantasy team? How many fill out NCAA brackets?
Based on more than a decade in the industry, the answer to both of those questions is -- a lot.
And what about their predictions that are printed with their mug shots right next to them? Isn’t it human nature to root for yourself?
For Recreational Purposes Only
Schultz is 76-50-1 against the spread on his picks in his weekly feature
, “Weekend Predictions.” If he would have invested $100 on each pick, he’d be up $2,100.
But Schultz doesn’t bet … anymore.
In 1976, as a high school junior, he was a part-time stringer for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook.
“There was a guy who worked in the shop who was a bookie,” Schultz said, “and I used to bet maybe three NFL games a week, $20 a game.”
Later in his career, he was covering a boxing match in Lake Tahoe and decided to place a wager on the fight.
“I rationalized it in my head by saying, ‘I’m not going to bet on either fighter; I’m just going to bet on the over/under,’ which was 6 ½ rounds,” Schultz said. “I bet the over. The fight went seven or eight rounds before it stopped, and I was ecstatic.
“After that, I found myself thinking that my head wasn’t on the fight when it was happening,” he continued. “I was just thinking one more round, one more round. At that moment, I decided that I wasn’t going to do that anymore.”
Brett McMurphy, national college football columnist for CBS Sports
, is hitting 54 percent of his predictions in his picks column
. But he isn’t encouraging readers to invest in his picks.
“I'm obviously trying to pick every game correctly, but I'm not egotistical enough to think that I'm going to always pick more winners than losers,” McMurphy wrote in an email. “If I wanted readers to bet actual money on these games I wouldn't do this for free. I'd have my own 900 number and release both sides of the game (isn't that how the scam-dicappers do it?) so at least half my client base would be happy. Again, I do this as a (sometimes very weak) attempt at humor. If folks somehow make some money off it great, but I would never encourage anyone to wager their paychecks on my picks."Objectivity or else
In my opinion, complete objectivity is unattainable. I also believe that it is possible to write a fair story on a game that you are invested in, financially or emotionally.
“My low point was when I covered the first round of the women's NCAA basketball tournament a few years back and, minutes before tipoff, I'm frantically trying to open up my sportsbook account,” a writer wrote in response to the survey. “I had forgotten that my offshore book posted women's lines. I placed my bet, won it comfortably and then smiled all the way to the media room. And no, the game's outcome did not affect my story. In fact, I'd argue that the bet helped me do my job better, because otherwise I would have fallen asleep like I did throughout the regular season games.”
The Denver Post
, like most major newspapers, does not agree with the writer’s or my opinion.
On Nov. 5, The Post announced the termination of columnist and reporter Jim Armstrong
Armstrong was identified in court documents after his local bookmaker was indicted. Armstrong was let go by the paper after 27 years.
"Readers have to believe and trust that all of us at The Denver Post cover events impartially and without a stake in the outcome," said Gregory L. Moore, editor of The Post, in the newspaper’s story on the indictment. "We take this very seriously."
Armstrong did not respond to interview requests for this story.
“I read the Denver Post thing and was kind of disgusted,” said Case Keefer, sports reporter at the Las Vegas Sun
. “My reaction to it was that we’d have no sports media in all of Vegas if that was the case.”
Las Vegas, obviously, is a bit of an anomaly, though. Most media outlets do have policies that discourage sports reporters from betting on games, especially ones that they are covering.
It’s all in the name of objectivity, something that is emphasized to sports and business reporters.
, Rovell isn’t allowed to trade individual stocks. When he joined CNBC in 2006, he was given six months to get rid of all stocks. Anyone in his immediate family with stocks has to declare them.
“I can have my money in mutual funds, IRAs or 401K,” Rovell explained, “but I cannot be in the position to do day-to-day trades. I think there are some people who might think that’s a little bit too much, but I know that [CNBC] is very serious about the integrity, especially with the SEC watching over every single company.”
ESPN does not have its analysts make predictions on games that they’ll be calling. It’s understandable, I guess, but certainly not as entertaining as, say, Brent Musburger slyly mentioning how Stanford’s overtime two-point conversion made a lot of people happy.
In the end, gambling in the media, much like in society, is widespread, but still not widely accepted.
“It’s 2011, isn’t it time that we accept that people like to bet on sports and move on?” Keefer concluded.