Michael Vick's Base Offense

Illegal gambling re-emerges as a threat to America's sporting culture


West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) thundered from the floor of the Senate, "Barbaric! Barbaric! Barbaric!"

The former Klansman was reacting to the 19-page federal indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on charges of staging and betting on dog fights up and down the East Coast. The charges detailed brutal treatment of the dogs by partners in Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, including culling weak fighters via gunshot or electrocution. Vick faces six years in prison and makes his first court appearance on Thursday.

The alleged abuse of the animals has understandably driven public comment and media attention. However, the NFL can sustain the substantial PR hit that would accompany a court case portraying one of its biggest stars as a closet sadist. A bigger problem for the integrity of the league is the possibly that Vick was a principal in an illegal gambling operation for the past six years.

On cue, as if to underscore this continual tension between sports betting and the sports the betting public loves, comes a parallel scandal involving an NBA referee. The FBI is investigating veteran ref Tom Donaghy, who is under suspicion of betting on NBA games, including ones he officiated.

Donaghy reportedly racked up large gambling debts at Atlantic City casinos, making him a classic target for a "reach out" from mobbed-up bookies. This is more or less the traditional mode for criminal infiltration of legitimate sporting leagues.

The sensitivity to even the perception that gambling interests might influence either an official or a player have long motivated league officials to try to wall-off their operations from any kind of betting. There is reason booming Las Vegas does not have a major league franchise. The NBA, in particular, has shied away immersing its impressionable young millionaires in the gaming culture there.

Elsewhere, even among dedicated gamers, betting on your own league is the bright-line virtually all athletes and coaches instinctively respect. Once that threshold is breached, it is far too easy for organized crime to ensnare an active player/coach gambler, perhaps merely by threatening to expose the activity and claim it influenced on-the-field performance. Leagues understandably want no part of trying to prove otherwise and have long imposed harsh penalties for dallying with gambling.

In 1963 Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, two of the NFL's biggest stars at the time, were suspended for a year from the league merely for associating with the wrong type of people at a bar owned by Karras. That and betting on NFL games. And it is Pete Rose's penchant for betting on baseball games, and then refusing to admit he had done so when questioned by league officials that has kept him out of the baseball Hall of Fame thus far—and perhaps forever.

Vick, if government claims are true, has by-passed gambling debts and mobbed-up bookies to go straight to running his own illegal gambling operation. Violence, gunplay, and secretive cash deals being part-and-parcel of the scene. To read the indictment, you would have no idea Vick signed a 10-year, $130-million contract a couple years ago. Government witnesses place him at dogfights in Virginia and the Carolinas hustling for $3000 here, $13,000 there.

The obvious question of motivation pops up, not just in a legal sense. On the face of it, running a Third World dog fighting operation near his hometown must have been as important to Vick as being an NFL star. His football career certainly now hangs in the balance as a result of his choice of associates, and he is likely to leave his team in the lurch for this season as his trial unfolds. Veteran lawyer and journalist Lester Munson has already declared that the media and legal circus around Vick will rival that of the O.J. Simpson trial.

But back to motive. Did Vick's dual lives ever collide? Prosecutors claim Vick lost a net of about $15,000 on his dog fights. Did he ever try to re-coup that by betting on NFL games, and if not, why not? I guarantee league officials have wondered about that question in recent weeks and shuddered about the potential answers.

Shuddered because the massive multi-billion dollar popularity of the NFL and the NBA and MLB rest actually rest on a very narrow premise: That the audience knows the score. That players and coaches are doing their very best to win at all times, and have no outside motivation to rival that goal. Anything else is a fraud, a breach of contract between spectator and participant.

The charges against Vick, at a minimum, remind us that we really do not know our sports heroes as well as we like to think. As the case moves forward, we come to find out that we do not know them at all.

Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.