The Opening Line

By John Canzano
Updated: May 25, 2008

Sports and GamblingOREGON — Nine years ago, a recovering compulsive gambler from New Jersey named Arnie Wexler was summoned to the NBA offices by the league security staff. He was working as a gambling counselor, running an intensive treatment program with his wife. Wexler spent four hours meeting with league officials.

Said Wexler: “They told me they had a problem, and they insinuated that all kinds of things were going on.”

Three days later, he had a second meeting, and the NBA security staff told him they were considering having him meet with coaches, officials and players from all teams over a three-month period in early 2000. Wexler’s job would be to determine how widespread the league’s problem with gambling might be.

The study never happened.

“The league put the kibosh on it,” Wexler said. “I was told higher-ups didn’t want this going public.”

So, yeah, nevermind what the NBA thinks, I’d love to hear more from disgraced game official Tim Donaghy. Also, in light of Charles Barkley’s $400,000 casino debt, and what we’re learning about Pacman Jones’ gambling habit, what all sports leagues need to do is stop being ignorant and start getting proactive. Exactly how pure are the games, really?

Wexler, who counseled former NFL quarterback Art Schlichter and late Monday Night Football executive producer Chet Forte, said he talks with Donaghy at least once a week. He’s privately counseled a major league baseball player who was making $800,000 a year but had a $25,000 debt in Atlantic City he couldn’t pay. Also, Wexler said he’s worked with an NFL kicker, and he’s counseling another NBA game official with a gambling compulsion.

“I think all sports are in denial,” Wexler said, “but especially the NBA.”

Do the executives who run the leagues hear any of this? Are they paying attention? Do they realize the stakes and understand that being proactive rather than reactive is the right thing to do when it comes to gambling?

Gambling is recreational for most people. Psychologists will tell you that only about 3-5 percent of those who wager become compulsive gamblers, but also, that athletes and high-achievers are predisposed because they’re competitive, have unreasonable expectations, distorted optimism and high levels of energy. When those compulsive gamblers get in trouble, there’s not just personal damage and family problems, but it also directly threatens the purity of the games.

Serious sports leagues should be proactive in identifying potential problems. They should be concerned with what we’re learning. Instead of trying to label Donaghy a rogue official, those charged with running sports should be interested in protecting the integrity of the game and its participants. I suppose it’s easier to make Pete Rose the exception, but maybe what we should do is consider that his ability to casually phone in wagers from the clubhouse was symptomatic of widespread ignorance from baseball officials.

We don’t know how big a problem gambling is in sports. We don’t know how many officials, coaches or players might be influencing the outcomes of games. Unlike drug addiction or alcohol abuse, when you’re an abusive gambler there are no track marks, no dilated pupils, no smell, no slurring, no stumbling around.

How Donaghy hid out for so long, fixing so many games, sort of makes you wonder.

“When gambling controls you, instead of you controlling it, that’s when you have a problem,” Wexler said. “And sport has a problem.”

The leagues spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to control image. It’s why the substance-abuse programs across all sports amount to a joke. But now we’re not just talking about an athlete, coach or official abusing his body, but potentially abusing the public’s trust.

Any form of an in-house gambling-abuse program isn’t going to solve anything. I suppose refusing to publicly acknowledge that there are concerns about gambling in sports would keep things tidy and quiet, but it’s the silence that’s helped perpetuate the danger. There’s a need for independent, objective, effective management and protection.

The NCAA, which conducts its own preventative program, should contract that to an independent outside source. The NFL, which hired Wexler to address players and their families in 1994, needs to explore a more substantive program. And Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA need to stop being gutless and start being real.

Said Wexler, “There’s all kinds of gambling going on. I have e-mails from athletes here, and have had private conversations that I can’t divulge, but I’m telling you, it’s huge.”

That worry anyone else?