The sports leagues have long argued that betting on sports must not be allowed in order to preserve the integrity of events. When Chris Christie announced that New Jersey was going to legalize sports betting, the leagues immediately protested and threatened the state with lawsuits as well as taking away lucrative games and sporting events from them. But while the leagues are indeed correct that integrity is paramount for their fans and viewers what they fail to acknowledge is that most cheating and loss of integrity is not because of wagering on games but for other reasons. And in most cases when the cheating is not related to betting they refuse to do anything about it calling it, "a part of the game." Take the Williams Sisters in the 2000 Wimbledon final. Serena was the best women's player in the game by far and was a big favorite to beat her sister Venus in the final but she "surprisingly" played a very poor game against Venus making several unforced errors and showing next to no emotion in her eventual loss. When Venus accepted the trophy there was next to no excitement in her voice and the girl's father admitted afterwards to a friend that he told Serena to lose the match to Venus because Serena already had a grand slam title and Venus needed to win in order to maximize potential sponsorship revenue. Despite that nothing was done to either of the William's sisters and Serena continues to be the best player 13 years later.
Another example of blatant cheating for a reason other than gambling occurred in the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix when Rubens Barichello was on his way to victory but moved over just prior to the finish line to allow Michael Schumacher to pass him and win per team orders. Bettors and fans alike were furious and it brought a lot of negative reaction to F1. Formula One's only reaction to Ferrari's disgraceful team orders was to fine the team because Schumacher refused to take his place on the podium. Later that year team orders were disallowed as a result of public outrage but a couple of years later when fans weren't paying attention F1 allowed team orders back in. Other cheating scandals have occurred throughout the years in U.S. sports as well. Who can forget the football game a while back where the last 2 teams in the league played each other on the final day and both teams tried to lose to get the number one draft pick or the New England Patriots cheating scandal in 2007 where they were caught filming signals of other teams. And in all sports teams will often lose games on purpose to try and eliminate other teams from making the playoffs or to get a better rival for themselves. But in all those cases the repercussions were minimal because the leagues clearly were more concerned about maintaining the league's reputation than actually worrying about the fans and how it would affect the integrity of the contests.
But of all the recent scandals perhaps the most repugnant occurred this Saturday night when Waltrip Racing teams cheated to get their driver Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. With only a few laps to go in the race Ryan Newman had the lead and Jeff Gordon was in 7th place. As it stood they would make the Chase for the Cup while Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano would be out. There was little chance the scenario would change over the last few laps so the crew chief for Clint Bowyer (a Waltrip Racing teammate) told Bowyer over the radio "39 (Newman) is going to win the race. After a brief pause he said "Is your arm starting to hurt?"..."I bet it's hot in there. Itch it." Almost immediately after those comments Clint Bowyer inexplicably spun his car bringing out the caution flag. After the race Bowyer claimed he had a tire going down and the spin was legitimate but Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was right behind Bowyer contradicted him.
"He was hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out," Earnhardt said. "I was right there."
Even then Martin Truex Jr. wouldn't have made the Chase unless Joey Logano picked up 2 spots to pass Jeff Gordon for 10th overall so Bowyer made a second inexplicable pit stop moving him behind Logano on the leaderboard and Brian Vickers (another Waltrip Racing teammate) came into the pits for "a flat tire" which allowed Logano to pass both of them on the track. Vickers questioned why he was coming in to the pits and his spotter and the team's general manager Ty Norris said the team needed the extra point. After the race Michael Waltrip is reported to have whispered to Martin Truex Jr. "you have some great teammates there."
It appeared NASCAR wasn't going to do anything but after a barrage of fan anger they said they would review the situation. After reviewing the tapes and audio NASCAR decided to fine Waltrip racing $300,000 and dock 50 points from each team thereby relegating Truex Jr. out of the Chase and giving Ryan Newman the last wild card spot. This isn't the first time Waltrip racing has been involved in a cheating scandal either. In 2007 Waltrip racing was docked 100 points and fined heavily for illegally adding jet fuel in their engines during the Daytona 500.
What makes this cheating scandal particularly odious is that the team's cheating affected other individuals and teams. Unlike with the Serena Williams and Rubens Barichello scandals mentioned earlier which only affected them, Waltrip Racing's cheating destroyed Jeff Gordon and his team's chances. Had the race been run out to its conclusion Jeff Gordon would have finished in 10th place and Joey Logano would have been out of the chase. As it is Jeff Gordon cannot win the championship. Considering Jeff Gordon is still a fan favorite, especially among younger NASCAR enthusiasts it's a bitter pill to swallow. I spoke to a friend of mine whose young son is a huge Jeff Gordon fan and he was furious. "Kevin was crying for hours after that race and we may not watch another race after this fiasco," my friend told me. "Worst than the fact that they cheated Jeff out of any chance to win; I now have to explain to my son why the sport he loves did nothing to rectify a clear wrong."
And of course the scandal affects the bettors. Regardless of what the sports leagues want people to believe, betting is imperative to their success. Without betting the NFL would not be nearly as successful as it is and betting on NASCAR has actually surpassed baseball on a given weekend at some sportsbooks. One sportsbook manager I spoke to was both relieved and upset at the result. He informed me that his offshore sportsbook stood to lose about $12,000 if Jeff Gordon won the chase but they stand to lose close $20,000 if Joey Logano wins the chase. And speaking to other sportsbook managers it seems Joey Logano is a bad result for all of them, likely as the result of his surge late in the year. "It's too bad they both didn't get knocked out," the sportsbook manager laughed. And even in Las Vegas it seems the change in order due to the cheating was significant. A radio station in Toronto indicated that one of the largest sportsbooks on the strip is set to "lose a fortune" if Logano takes the championship. Sportsbooks are used to bad beats as a result of bad officiating or player incompetence but not because of blatant cheating.
If integrity in sports is not maintained then fans will eventually tune out of the games or events. People watch and wager on sports because they believe that the games are legitimate and that the final result will be decided due to skill and luck. If it turns out that the games are compromised by factors like cheating they'll have no time or interest. NASCAR did the right thing by eliminating Martin Truex Jr. from the Chase but it is still a huge black mark on the sport. Let's hope in the future all leagues take severe action against blatant cheaters whether it's caused by gambling or for any other reason. Oh by the way, Serena Williams won another U.S. Open on Sunday, ho-hum, although she never did have to explain or pay for ripping off the fans in 2000.