Friday, October 31, 2008


For most of the year I’m content to watch games without mercenary incentive, but that changes in the fall, when foot meets ball. There’s something about point-spread betting that makes handicapping football irresistible—especially the National Football League variety. I take rating the games as a personal challenge, one that spices my every week from the beginning of September until Super Bowl Sunday in February.

When I tell people I bet on the NFL the first question I get is “How much?” “None of your business,” I reply, but I add that it’s not nearly enough to alter my standard of living, win or lose.

The second question usually concerns with whom I bet. Same answer as the first, but I will say he’s a great sportsman and fine fella who serves a societal need. In that capacity, at least.

If it were up to me sports gambling would be legal in this land in places other than the great state of Nevada. People are going to do it whether or not they’re supposed to, and the activity might as well benefit us all by being taxed. Just about every state already allows casinos and horse and dog tracks, and runs dressed-up numbers games called lotteries, for heaven’s sake, so we voters long ago signed off on the moral issue.

Among sports betting’s loudest foes is the NFL, which, interestingly, also is among its greatest beneficiaries. The league decries anything that would divert fan attention from the simple question or winning or losing while publishing the sort of detailed weekly injury reports only gamblers require. It revels in the title of “America’s Sport” while failing to acknowledge that much of the fervor its contests arouse stems from betting interest. When a team is leading late in a game by two touchdowns and its fans are screaming for it to score again, you know the spread is 14 points.

You can bet on other pro sports, too (I leave the college kids alone), but it’s not like betting on the NFL. Baseball games often are decided by a run or two so the point-spread treatment doesn’t work; rather, it’s commonly bet on a money line that makes one team, say, a 5 ½-6 favorite over another, meaning that a $1 wagered on the underdog returns $1.10 while someone betting the favorite has to put up $1.20 to win $1. It’s a game of small differences that prove out over a 162-game season, but are very hard to predict day by day.

Pro basketball’s 82-game regular season is about half as long as baseball’s but the sport’s one-night-stand travel is brutal and its physical pace is demanding. Even good teams take nights off on court but, of course, don’t announce them. Gambling on basketball and baseball are specialized arts that require agility, stamina and deep pockets. The “don’t try this at home” warning fully applies.

By contrast, the 32 NFL teams play just once a week, which allows us plungers plenty of time to analyze the matchups beforehand and heal our wounds afterward. Further, football’s scoring is ideally suited to equalizing games through point spots, or spreads. The league’s best team may be playing the worst but the spread can turn the game into a challenging betting proposition.

To bet football right you have to do what the people who set the spreads do. That’s to maintain what’s called a “power rating,” which quantities the differences among the contestants. Give each team a grade, or score, with the best ones getting the lowest numbers. Update it at least weekly to reflect the teams’ latest performances and their injury situations, as best as you can figure them out.

Say that your PR puts the Giants at 3 and the Bears at 10. That would make the Giants a 7-point favorite on a neutral field. Then plug in the home-field advantage, usually three points. Playing in New York the Giants would be +10, in Chicago +4. If your number differs from the bookie’s by 3 points or more, or if it’s on the opposite side of such “key” numbers as 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 14, 17 or 21—point margins by which many games are decided—you’ve got a bet.

At this point I suppose you’d like some betting advice. My record over the last couple of seasons forces me to demur on grounds of modesty, but I can do better by passing along some tips from the estimable Mr. Lem Banker of Las Vegas, my mentor in this regard. Lem is a gen-u-wine expert, maybe the smartest sports bettor ever. He and I collaborated on a 1986 book on the subject (“Lem Banker’s Book of Sports Betting”) that’s considered a classic. Honest.

Sez Lem:

--Don’t be afraid to bet on underdogs. Most people like to back favorites and the spreads reflect this.

--Favor teams with good rushing attacks over those that mostly pass. Football’s a rough-and-tough game and the teams that run best are the roughest and toughest.

--Injuries to quarterbacks, running backs and pass receivers are overrated. Injuries to offensive linemen and defensive backs are underrated.

--If a team has an extraordinarily good or bad game one week, look for it to revert to form the next.

--Most important, bet what you can afford to lose, not what you’d like to win.

And, hey, what are you going to do with your money these days, put it in the stock market?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Almost every morning I scan a number of sports pages on the Internet and a story (several, actually) in the Chicago papers caught my eye a week or so ago. It was about Ben Gordon, a guard for the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, and his salary struggles with the team.

Gordon is entering his fifth NBA season and will be eligible for free agency at its end. Teams often try to tie their better players to long-term deals before they gain their contractual freedom and the Bulls did this with Gordon last season, reportedly offering him something around $50 million over five years. Gordon said uh-uh and played out the campaign. More negotiations ensued and the Bulls changed their offer to $58 million over six years, a bit of a drop on an annual basis. Gordon, who is said to have sought an annual paycheck in the vicinity of $12 million, said uh-uh again.

When the new season approached with no deal in sight, the Bulls made the young man a “qualifying” offer of $6.4 million that would retain his services for this season only, after which he’d be free to try to better his lot elsewhere. Gordon wound up taking it, but not with good grace. “I can go into a long list of things I’m surprised about that didn’t happen,” he remarked upon his appearance at training camp, using the elliptical language with which jocks often express themselves these days.

What Gordon really is “worth” in his league is an open question. He’s a quick-draw jump shooter who scores and runs the floor well but isn’t especially good at handling the ball, passing, penetrating or defending. In his mind he’s Allen Iverson, driving the lane and making shots from every conceivable angle, but when he tries an Iverson-like move he usually gets stripped or stuffed. I wouldn’t give him $12 mil per to play on my team.

The point I want to make, though, has to do with Gordon’s apparent disdain for the salary for which he’s forced to labor this season and the fact that his attitude toward it is typical rather than exceptional among today’s big-time professional athletes. Six point four million dollars a year is an enormous amount of money by any standard other than theirs, or, maybe, Angelina Jolie’s. Treating it as chump change boggles the mind.

The jock-salary explosion already had started when I began writing regularly about sports in the mid-1980s, with the average Major League Baseball player’s salary hovering around $500,000 a year. That number seems quaint now but was more than enough for me to note that the typical ballplayer probably was earning more in a year than his father did in a lifetime.

Impressive as it was, the comparison no longer holds. The current average-annual-pay figures— about $3.2 million in baseball, $3.7 million in the NBA and $1.5 million in the National Football League--probably are more than every father on the jock’s block ever will make. Looked at another way, even after taxes one year as an “average” NBA player should be enough to insure that the recipient and his family can live comfortably forevermore, without again needing to work. And that’s for doing something others do for fun.

In good economic years and bad, salaries at pro sports’ upper levels have risen to the point where, I’m sure, the sums involved are abstractions to the people who receive them, losing all relationship to human needs. They’re a source of competition in an already competitive milieu, with players asking for more at least partly because they want to outdo the guy across the locker room. The type of consumption that often goes with the lush pay is competitive, too, which is one reason jock fortunes sometimes disappear quickly. It’s only monopoly money, after all.

What should we make of this? A few in my acquaintance say they’re so disgusted with the big-money aspects of sports that they’ve turned them off, but most of us are able to separate the cash and the games and enjoy the latter anyway. Otherwise, we can invoke wise sayings about life’s unfairness, such as Mel Brook’s “It’s good to be king,” or ponder the line (Babe Ruth’s, I think) about how nobody who works for anybody else is overpaid.

And remember, being a fan ain’t like playing taxes, it’s voluntary. They only get your money if you give it to them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The baseball playoffs are underway and I’m sure you’re thrilled with the fact the ballparks involved have been wired to permit TV “instant” replay to determine whether home run-like blows are fair or foul, in or out.

I put the word “instant” in quotes because they belong there. Baseball first implemented TV replays on questionable home runs late last month. In each of the few times the system was used, play was halted for about five minutes while the umpires went wherever they did to examine the tapes and reach their decision. While they were out, the paying customers in the stands and the folks at home in televisionland amused themselves as best they could.

But—hey!—the calls came out right, didn’t they? Maybe. As anyone who has seen the movie “Rashomon” knows, reality can be complex, viewpoint is important and seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Often, a replay adds another level of controversy to one that already exists.

Worse, subjecting playing-field doings to microscopic video analysis gives them vastly more importance than they deserve. They’re games, for heaven’s sake, and no matter what the sports crazies think the fate of the republic doesn’t hang on their outcome. Players and coaches make mistakes—plenty of them. Officials can be excused an occasional miscue.

That was why Major League Baseball’s surrender to the replay clamorers particularly pained me. Commish Selig previously had resisted nobly, holding with his sainted predecessors that baseball was played by humans and should be judged by them. No more needed to have been said. But now that the camel has its nose in the tent, can its whole bulky, smelly body be far behind?

The National Basketball Association adopted video replay (on shots or fouls at or near the buzzers) in 2002, but the blame for the mania rests squarely with the National Football League, which adopted it earlier and uses it far more often. This was only to be expected from our most corporate and grandiose sporting entity. It forever gained the latter distinction some years ago when it sponsored a national student essay contest on its place in American history. The subject could have been covered in a single word: none.

The NFL’s bureaucratizing bent is best seen in its handling of pre-game player-injury reports. In the old days teams issued these haphazardly, creating an underground market for the real scoop among the gamblers whose attentions add much to the sport’s popularity. The league responded by requiring public disclosure, but has tinkered with the process so much that the categories have become blurry and the lists bewilderingly long. And guess what? The underground market lives again.

The league already litters its fields of play with seven game officials, all with yellow penalty handkerchiefs at the ready. This contrasts with soccer, where a single referee oversees as many players on a larger greensward. It’s a wonder that the football zebras don’t get tangled up in plays more than they do. Being an NFL umpire (the guy who usually positions himself behind the defensive line) is akin to smoke jumping in terms of dangerousness.

It’s a natural law that if you give someone a job he’ll do it whether or not it needs doing, so many NFL contests are veritable penalty fests. The game encourages players to commit acts against the opposition that would qualify as felonies in the square world, and it’s impossible to loose 22 amped up and overmuscled young men on such missions without some rule being broken. The question then becomes not who is breaking the rules but which violations deserve censure. Knowing that the camera always is watching, and judging, can only prompt officials to be overzealous.

So the hankies flutter down like confetti at a political convention, the worst being the red ones coaches use to seek justice when they feel they’ve been wronged. Off goes the ref to daven under the cover of the replay machine while the TV commentators dissect the play in question and argue about what they see, or don’t see, or think they see.

Throughout the land toilets flush and Sunday newspaper crossword puzzles are revisited.

This is not what Pete Rozelle intended when he invented the game.