A History of Infamous Point-Shaving Scandals

Cheaters never prosper, not even in gambling.

scott-killingerby scott-killinger

Point-shaving schemes have been around since the advent of point spreads, and they will surely continue to rear their ugly heads in the future. Point shaving is when athletes conspire with gamblers to ensure a team won’t cover a given point spread. Usually, the schemes involve college athletes who can be swayed by gifts or a few thousand dollars. In most cases, they are convinced under the guise that they aren’t being asked to throw games, but just harmlessly manipulate the point spread. Games in which a participating athlete’s team is a substantial favorite are the best candidates. For example, if a basketball team is favored by 12 points, the player or players in on the fix would play in such a manner to make sure they won, but by less than 12 points. Point shaving is not foolproof, though, and there have been numerous instances in which, despite having willing players, the desired outcome was not achieved. Here are a few notable point-shaving scandals, and before you get any crazy ideas of your own, know that perpetrating one is a federal crime.

The City College of New York – 1951
Basketball has been the most common target for point-shaving schemes because points are scored frequently and it takes only a small number of players to impact the game. In 1950, the best team in college basketball wasn’t Duke or North Carolina, but the City College of New York (CCNY). At that time, the NIT and NCAA tournaments were considered somewhat equal in stature and held at different times, so it was possible for a team to play in both. CCNY did win both in 1950, something no other team would do in the history of the sport. However, in 1951, following a sting investigation, three of CCNY’s star players were arrested for manipulating point spreads during that historic season. Eventually, dozens more were brought up on charges, and organized crime was implicated. Overall, the scandal engrossed seven different schools and affected the scores of 86 games. It permanently removed CCNY as a national basketball power, and had a detrimental effect on New York City college basketball for decades to come.

Boston College – 1978
The Boston College point-shaving scandal is notable for its ties to mobster-turned-FBI-informant Henry Hill, on whom the movie “Goodfellas” was based. Brothers Rocco and Tony Perla were two small-time gamblers who were friends with Rick Kuhn, a player on the Boston College basketball team. The Perla brothers approached Kuhn about shaving points, and he agreed to participate and recruit additional players. Through a friend, the Perla brothers were introduced to Henry Hill, who agreed to help set up a betting syndicate that would allow them to spread out their bets over many different bookmakers so as not to arouse suspicion. The scheme worked for several games until a match-up with Holy Cross, when the BC players failed to lose by more than the point spread. The mob backers pulled out and the scheme was discontinued. In all likelihood, this would never have been uncovered if not for Henry Hill volunteering the details when he became an FBI informant in 1980.

Arizona State University – 1994
Facilitated by campus bookie Benny Silman, the ASU point-shaving scandal involved basketball players Stevin Smith and Isaac Burton. Smith, who is still ASU’s fifth all-time leading scorer, was paid $80,000 to affect the point spread of four games. Smith realized it would be difficult to do it alone, so he enlisted his teammate Burton and paid him a total of $4,300 over two games. However, the Vegas casinos that Silman and his associates were using to place their bets sniffed the scheme out. The casinos became suspicious when nearly $1 million in bets was wagered on Washington for their game with ASU on March 5, 1994. Usually, it’s not the government that initially exposes point-shaving schemes, but bookmakers and other gamblers. Eventually, friends of Smith began talking, and the whole plot unraveled. Silman served almost four years in federal prison while Smith served one year and Burton two months.

Northwestern University – 1995
All universities are potential targets for point-shaving schemes, even ones with stellar academic reputations like Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. During the 1994-1995 season, Kevin Pendergast, a former standout kicker for the Notre Dame football team, reached out to Kenneth Lee, a guard on the Northwestern basketball team. Pendergast was deeply in debt from gambling and other activities, and had received a tip from a friend that Lee would be receptive to shaving points. The two hatched a scheme, with Lee agreeing to recruit other players. Northwestern at the time was coming off a 5-22 season, and were heavy underdogs for most of their games the next season. In contrast to the CCNY and ASU scandals, the Northwestern players made sure that they lost by more than the point spread. The scheme worked for the first two games, with Northwestern losing by more than the point spread in each. However, in the third game their opponent, Michigan, was almost a 30-point favorite. The players were unable to lose by more than 30 points, and Pendergast along with his associates took huge losses. The scheme began to unravel after that, and the FBI started investigating. Pendergast would end up serving two months in prison while Lee and another Northwestern player each served a month.

NBA – 2007
Naturally, basketball referees also make ideal participants for point-shaving schemes. Find one like former NBA ref and gambling addict Tim Donaghy, and the circumstances are ripe. Donaghy and high-school friends Jimmy Battista and Tommy Martino hatched a betting scheme in which Donaghy would use his inside knowledge as an NBA official to provide picks. Battista was a professional gambler who placed the bets while Martino acted as the middleman. According to Battista, Donaghy initially received $2,000 per correct pick, and after starting 6-0, his rate went up to $5,000 per correct pick. The arrangement took place over the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons. Eventually, the betting community caught wind that Donaghy was betting on and possibly influencing NBA games. To this day, Donaghy, Martino and Battista claim they didn’t conspire to influence point spreads. However, an analysis of all the games Donaghy officiated during that time found statistical anomalies along with irregular betting patterns. Donaghy would plead guilty to federal conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Battista was also sentenced to 15 months while Martino received one year.

University of Toledo – 2007
Point-shaving schemes in football are a lot less common than basketball because of the higher degree of difficulty. This did not stop Adam Cuomo, a running back on the University of Toledo football team, from making an attempt. Cuomo, who was on the team from 1999-2003, had a relationship with two Detroit-area gamblers who agreed to bankroll the scheme. Cuomo recruited other players and also sought to expand it to the basketball team. Players on both the Toledo football and basketball teams pled guilty to conspiracy charges, including another former running back who admitted that he accepted $500 to fumble in a 2005 bowl game. Cuomo is currently awaiting sentencing and is expected to receive 24-30 months in prison.