Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Jimmy "the Greek's" Take on Legalized Sports Gambling

ESPN's 30 for 30 series of one hour documentaries has covered several interesting subjects, including the rise and fall of the USFL, the Ali-Holmes fight and the death of Len Bias. This week's episode looked at Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder, who starred on CBS' NFL Today pregame show from 1976-87. The NFL Today dominated the airwaves during a pre-internet era in which cable TV was just getting started; the show began several years before ESPN was even created. Brent Musburger--who of course now works for ESPN, primarily covering college football--hosted the NFL Today, former Miss America Phyllis George contributed player interviews, ex-NFL defensive back Irv Cross provided a player's perspective and Jimmy "the Greek" made game predictions, explaining his reasoning with a lengthy toteboard that broke down each matchup in several key categories. The NFL was very touchy about any explicit mention of gambling or point spreads, so Jimmy "the Greek" danced around those issues with thinly veiled euphemisms, saying that he liked one team purely because of home field advantage (customarily worth three points) or concluding that a certain team would probably win because of a late field goal.

Seeing the 30 for 30 footage of NFL Today brought back some fond childhood memories. George recalled that during that time people would race home from church to watch the NFL Today. I certainly remember that the first thing I did after coming home from Sunday School was to turn on the NFL Today. At that time I did not really understand that Jimmy "the Greek's" predictions segment had anything to do with gambling but I was fascinated by the way that he systematically analyzed each team and explained the logical reasons that one team should be favored; I have always watched sports analytically--even as a child--and each week I hoped that he would talk about the Browns, my favorite team. My dad used to complain that we should watch the pregame show on NBC because NBC covered the AFC teams at that time while CBS had the NFC teams but I insisted that we watch the NFL Today: it was more informative and more entertaining. It is pretty clear that I was right on both counts--I sure don't hear anyone speaking nostalgically about NBC's pregame show circa 1978 but the NFL Today is rightly recognized as a classic piece of Americana/sports history.

A lot of the narrative of the 30 for 30 show sounded familiar to me but as a student of sports history I quickly figured out why this is the case: the episode was largely if not entirely based on a great Sports Illustrated article that Frank Deford wrote in 1980 (Deford was interviewed on camera throughout the show but ESPN neglected to mention Deford's article). I have that old SI issue somewhere in my archives but thanks to the SI Vault anyone can find it easily. After watching the show, I reread Deford's article. One passage caught my eye and is particularly relevant today in light of the bill recently passed in Ohio that paved the way for the opening of several casinos; Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert loudly supported the bill and because of his interest in the future Cleveland casino he figures to become substantially wealthier as a result of this vote. Jimmy "the Greek" is widely credited--or blamed--for taking sports gambling "out of the closet" and making it a mainstream, socially acceptable activity but even in 1980 when he was at the height of his fame and influence (and likely could not have imagined just how mainstream sports gambling would become in the next few years) he had serious misgivings about the potential widespread legalization of sports gambling. Deford wrote:

Yet for all that gambling has done for him, The Greek is suspicious of its universal charm, especially of those entrepreneurs and politicians who tout it as a bounteous cure-all. Widespread legalized gambling is a scourge upon the land, he declares. "Gambling should be made difficult for the average man. It should be something he budgets to do once or twice a year. Vegas was best when it was hardest to reach," he says.

"You see, it isn't the two or three percent, the house edge, that beats you. Otherwise, people would only lose two or three percent, and so what? It's the psychology. A guy goes to a casino. He wins $500, he's ecstatic. He goes home, buys his wife a present, springs for a night out. Fine. Now he goes back. This time he loses $500. O.K., altogether he's even. But does he quit $500 down the way he did $500 up? No. He takes another $500 out of the bank. And now he's pressing, so he blows that and borrows $500. Now he's out $1,500, and this is a guy who only makes 20 to 25 grand a year. He goes home, gets into his wife's checking account.

"This is what happens when gambling is too accessible. Everybody gets hurt but the casino. The guy can't buy the new summer suit or the new shoes for his wife. He lets the tune-up go. The stores are hurt, the restaurant, the gas station. This is the kind of stuff you'll start to see soon at Atlantic City.

"And if they legalized sports betting, the little guy would be just as dead. We'd find a way to beat you. Right now, if we—me, anybody—tried to bet more than $50,000 on any game, we'd have a hard time. And when you only got $50 riding, you can't pay enough to fix a game. Put a pencil to it. But with legalized gambling, there'd be so much money bet you could get down a million or more on one game. So now it's worth it to pay for a fix, isn't it? And that's easy. You don't need the quarterback. Just gimme the center. Gimme the referee. All I'd need is one offside at the right time. You don't even need to get a guy to throw it for you. Suppose we just pay a big star $50,000 to stay home with the flu? Nobody ever thought of that before, did they?"

Jimmy "the Greek" made a fortune not only with his knowledge of sports handicapping but also by wagering on the outcome of political races (he bet thousands on Truman in the 1948 Presidential election even though the "experts" were sure that Dewey would win); in other words, he was not only a numbers whiz but he also understood psychology and knew how to read people. Ohio residents--and the residents of other states that have legalized various forms of gambling--better hope that Jimmy "the Greek's" ominous 1980 prediction does not come back to haunt them 10 or 20 years after Gilbert and his cronies build their casinos; guys like Jimmy "the Greek" can "beat the house" because they are smart and because they do their homework but the reality is that most people who place bets are not that smart and they don't do their homework.

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