King Kaufman's Sports Daily

A match-fixing scandal centering on referees has stunned German soccer. That sort of thing has never happened in the U.S. Why not? And could it?

By Salon Staff
Published March 29, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

An officiating scandal has rocked German soccer. A referee named Robert Hoyzer has been banned for life and arrested after admitting he took bribes from Croatian gamblers to fix lower-division matches. The gamblers have also been arrested.

Trying to avoid prison, Hoyzer is naming names, and the scandal, which broke in January, has been deepening weekly, spreading across Europe. The latest bombshell is that the gamblers had advance notice of who would be refereeing Champions League matches, which is privileged information.

Could such a thing happen here? Maybe, but consider this: With nine seconds to go in Villanova's NCAA Tournament game against favored North Carolina last week, guard Allan Ray hit a shot to bring the Wildcats within one. A whistle blew. Foul on defender Rashad McCants and a chance for Ray to tie the game with a free throw.

No, wait. Referee Tom O'Neill had called Ray, who had taken the legal two steps, for traveling. That wiped out the basket and effectively ended Villanova's upset bid. In the days since, there has been as close to unanimous agreement as the sports world ever gets that O'Neill blew the call. It was the most obvious, widely agreed-upon officiating mistake in a big American game in half a dozen years.

Yet not one serious person has even hinted that O'Neill was on the take, that he'd been paid off to fix the game in Carolina's favor.

A match-fixing scandal in world cricket in the late '90s included allegations against umpires. The corrupt adventures of boxing, figure skating and gymnastics judges have overshadowed athletic performances in several recent Olympic Games. But in the major American team sports, cheating or fixing by on-field officials is all but unknown. Incompetence, sure. Corruption, no.

"I have to tell you, I've been involved with officiating for 30 years," says Alan Goldberger, a New Jersey attorney who specializes in sports law and represents officiating organizations, "and I'm sure I've heard of incidents of bribery in 30 years, I just can't remember one."

Bill Topp, a vice president of the National Association of Sports Officials, agrees. "We are not aware of any gambling scandal involving officials in the United States in any sport at any level," he writes in an e-mail.

"Certainly there are officials who have been approached, and they do report that because that's what we ask them to do," says Bill Saum, the NCAA's director of agent and gambling activities. "The ones that we know of and the ones that communicate with us or their conferences, they've handled it like the pros that they are. We've never been concerned."

Saum is the only person interviewed for this column who said it isn't unusual for gamblers to at least approach officials, though others mentioned rare, isolated cases they'd heard of. The NBA declined an interview, and the NFL and Major League Baseball did not return phone calls.

How can this be? American sports are a multibillion-dollar enterprise. The parade of CEOs and big-name accounting firms through American courtooms over the last few years has shown us, if we didn't already know, that where vast sums of money congregate, the temptation to illegally grab some extra bills is too much for some people, even if they're otherwise solid citizens.

How can it be that we've never had even a serious allegation that an official had been bought off? Everyone who's ever rooted against the Duke basketball team, for example, has suggested that the refs are paid to make calls in the Blue Devils' favor, but that's just fan woofing. Reasonable people tend not to lend much credence to such talk.

It may be that there's a dark underbelly of bribes and corruption among referees and umpires that's merely waiting to be exposed by -- pardon the term -- a whistle-blower. But more likely, the corruption itself is exceedingly rare, if not absent, because of a combination of factors: careful hiring, the nature of the sports themselves, preventive measures, scrutiny of officials' work by the media and massive numbers of fans, and the way gambling works in this country.

Jim Tunney, who officiated in the NFL for 31 years starting in 1960, points out that by the time an official is hired by the big league, he's been vetted by organizations at lower levels, and he's performed well along the way, his calls holding up to scrutiny. The NFL, like other major leagues and the NCAA, then does extensive background and credit checks.

"The point is we hire only the best people," Tunney says. Though he's now a motivational speaker with no ties to the NFL, Tunney still uses "we" when referring to both on-field officials and the league itself. "It doesn't mean we're better than everybody else. It just means we've gone through a system where we've kept our noses clean," he says.

Goldberger says officials are too worried about getting the calls right to worry about altering those calls to fit a betting scheme. "It's out of their worldview," he says. "This racket is tough enough. It's difficult enough to get calls right with all the scrutiny that we're under without having to think about extraneous things.""

Tunney and Saum both point to preventive measures, such as educating officials about the dangers of gambling or associating with gamblers. You may have seen the "Don't Bet on It" public-service announcements on television, which are aimed at athletes. Saum says there's also a wealth of materials and programs aimed at refs.

"What we try and do is not be naive," he says, pointing out that officials working the two basketball Tournaments would have watched an anti-gambling video the day before competition began. "We understand we're dealing with human beings. I don't believe there's any problem at all or has ever been, but I think it's important."

"The league talks to officials every year about those kinds of things, associating with the wrong kind of people," Tunney says. "We're not allowed to go to Las Vegas. When Pete Rozelle was in charge, we couldn't visit Bachelors III that Joe Namath ran, remember that? Because of the gambling element."

Bachelors III was a Manhattan restaurant Namath owned a stake in at the time of his 1969 Super Bowl triumph. The NFL asked him to sell it because it attracted "undesirables," meaning gamblers. He balked, then relented.

Tunney tells a story that illustrates how appearances matter in these things. He says he was in Las Vegas once to speak at a company's meeting, and as he walked with the CEO through the casino, Tunney slipped his Super Bowl ring off his finger and into his pocket. The CEO noticed and asked why he'd done it.

"Because when I walk through there," Tunney says, "somebody sees the Super Bowl ring and says, 'Oh, that's Tunney, the referee. I bet he's gambling. I wonder if he gambles on the games.' That kind of little suspicion, you've got to be, as they say, above Caesar's wife. Above reproach."

But even a crooked official immune to his league's exhortations to honesty and truth might have a hard time in the major American sports having enough of an influence on the outcome of a game to be a good investment for a gambler. That may be why it's been players, not officials, who have been bribed in all of the American sports scandals, such as the 1919 World Series or college basketball's various point-shaving schemes.

A soccer referee can have a huge effect on a game by assessing a single penalty shot or red card. Judges in the Olympic sports often have total control over the outcome. But, as Tunney points out, "In the NFL, what can you do? Maybe you don't make a call that costs a team the game? Well, you never know when a game comes down to that, you know?"

A mobster with enough money or leverage might convince a basketball referee, say, to make calls that favor the home team, but if the visiting team shoots the lights out and roars to a 20-point lead, there's not much the ref can do at that point, certainly not without being detected.

Fans will boo and moan and complain about a bad call, but they'll chalk it up to the human element, as we've seen with O'Neill's traveling call against Villanova. A pattern of bad calls going against one team, though, which is the only way a baseball umpire or a football, basketball or hockey official can be sure of affecting a game, would be spotted by fans and supervisors alike.

"If they should screw up too much, then there's a lot of people waiting to replace them," Goldberger says. Tunney says that in the NFL, "They tell me that there are a thousand or two applicants every year, and they hire four or five or six people."

Of course, not all games are scrutinized equally. The match-fixing scandal in German soccer began with revelations about fixes in lower-division games, far from the spotlight. The equivalent in this country might be trying to manipulate a minor-league baseball game, and there isn't a lot of betting action on minor-league baseball games.

"It is very difficult to rig a game that is televised and therefore scrutinized by hundreds of thousands of people," says Marc Weinberg, a professional sports bettor now in the tout business as the CEO of the sports handicapping service "The flip side is that if sports books are suddenly taking huge bets on a minor game they will generally spot that something is up and take action. But national coverage is probably the main reason why no one has tried to bribe officials in major U.S. sports."

Weinberg, who was born and raised in South Africa, also points out an important difference between the way the gambling business works in the United States and elsewhere.

"In England alone there are thousands of betting shops representing several different firms on most major streets," he says, "so if you wanted to pull off an elaborate coup you could place large bets simultaneously in different locations, and the firms are generally unable to spot any patterns until after settling the bets.

"In the States most of the legitimate betting action is centered in Las Vegas, and the sports books there all watch one another's boards for any big changes. It would be impossible logistically to execute that scale of coup without everyone in the industry noticing immediately and suspending betting. In Europe they'll still smell the rat, but sometimes only after the fact."

But the centralized sports book system hasn't stopped American players from taking money to alter the outcomes of games, so there's more to it than that. Could it really be, as Tunney suggests, that careful hiring, background checks and enforcement have had a 100 percent success rate?

That would be hard to believe. Lots of professions have careful hiring practices, strict enforcement of ethical codes or massive public scrutiny, and still have corruption pop up from time to time. Where's that one crooked ref?

Goldberger, the attorney, says he's met that ref many times over. He just isn't fixing games.

"We have had, unfortunately, more than a few instances of referees, mostly at lower levels, who have gotten in legal scrapes that reflect a propensity for crimes involving theft and embezzlement and other violations of the criminal code," he says. "We've had people embezzle money from the officials' associations. I've seen a bunch of these cases. I've just never seen anybody even make the allegation that this guy who took money out of the treasury, or who embezzled money from his business partner or something, that he ever threw a game for money.

"In a way it's odd to me," he says. "But in a way it isn't."

Previous column: Incredible. Dazzling. Sweet 16

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