June 13, 2024

Source: Bigstock

Winning at all costs is a double-edged conundrum, especially where sport is concerned. Both my father and uncle were track stars who represented Greece during the Chariots of Fire period. Fair play back then was more important than winning. I was brought up that way, although it was hard to comply at times, especially when facing opponents whose style I can charitably only describe as all-out. My racket was tennis, a supposedly gentleman’s sport and played only by amateurs. Once on the tour, competing against “shamateurs” as they were called because payments were under the table, sportsmanship quickly lost its halo. There were fewer than ten men on the tour who knew what fork to eat fish with, but that’s another story for another time. Suffice to say that the ’50s were the best-ever years for me, traveling all over, playing tournaments in country clubs, but also in Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, and the magnificent Foro Italico, chasing the fairer sex nonstop and at times even winning a match or two. After about ten years of travel and fun, during the French Championships, my doubles partner and I had the No. 1 American team on the ropes, leading two sets to one and five to three games in the fourth. I’m not naming names because it was so long ago, 1964 or ’65. During that crucial game one of our opponents fell chasing a ball and declared he could not continue. As we were certain of victory, we decided to give him a day to recover because a win was far more important than a walkover. It was one of the four majors, after all.

“So, is professional sport going the way of the three-card hustle we used to see on the sidewalks of New York?”

Remember those were amateur days, without strict rules and computerized schedules. The next day was an eye-opener for me, at least as far as sportsmanship was concerned, because after the Americans had beaten us in five sets, one of them told me that it was all planned. We were playing over our heads and they were having a day off. No rules were broken as there were very few rules and all of us, including the ref, had agreed to finish the match the next day. Why am I bringing any of this up? That’s an easy one to answer. When I was competing back in the ’50s and ’60s, I had not understood the “uncrossable divide” between privileged people like myself and those who competed in sport in order to get out of the ghetto or barrio or public house they came from. Sportsmanship was the be-all and end-all for people like myself, but for others winning was the only thing. I was in a very tiny minority that became smaller by the minute.

I hope this doesn’t sound like the false catharsis of a loser, just a nostalgic backward look at a more innocent time. I suppose age has a lot to do with it, my sudden lack of interest in who wins what and in what sport. The other thing that turns me off is the fact that gambling in sports is now bigger than sport itself, and the betting sport scandals will only get worse. Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL follow the same rule as far as fans are concerned: Bet, bet, and bet. There are millions and millions of suckers out there, and professional sport is reeling them in like Calypso once did sailors. And yet pro sport depends on authenticity and credibility, and fans must believe that the games they follow are fair and that each athlete is making the maximum effort to win. Well, I got news for you. If unrestricted gambling on pro sport continues in the manner it has these past few years, a Black Sox scandal is inevitable. Why is it inevitable? That’s an easy one to answer. Today casinos and betting companies are advertising in stadiums and arenas, many sports venues permit gambling outlets inside their stadiums, and owners of teams such as Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys have bought gambling sites such as DraftKings.

In fact, this has become a joke. Once upon a time the appearance of integrity was all-important in pro sport. So crucial, in fact, that the only state where sports gambling was legal—Nevada—could not have a professional team. Everything changed when the Supreme Court struck down a law that banned sports betting outside Nevada. Thirty-seven states quickly followed suit.

So, is professional sport going the way of the three-card hustle we used to see on the sidewalks of New York? Not right away, no, but there are people out there watching like hawks pro athletes in trouble, and ready to step in to help them. With the kind of help Hitler gave the Jews. Pro athletes are young and impressionable. Some of them have just been caught and banned from baseball. Others that we don’t know have not been caught. My old sports such as skiing, polo, and the martial arts do not attract gamblers, but tennis does. Great upsets are apparently investigated, but in tennis it is almost impossible to prove that a bad result was on purpose. Anyone who has ever hit a ball knows that the greatest of them all can fluff the easiest of volleys. Perhaps that is why I miss those bad old days of shamateurism, when the greatest of crimes was to fake an injury so you play another day.


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