People love a scandal—particularly a public scandal involving the rich and famous. In June 2011, the front page of the Sunday New York Times
ran a story called “The Gossip Machine,”
which exposed just how lucrative the gossip industry has become thanks to our ever growing “appetite for dirt.” Perhaps we are drawn to scandals because they reveal that even celebrities are human and not invulnerable to the kinds of humiliating errors that ruin ordinary folks. Perhaps we like to think that, if put in the same position, we would do things differently.
Less satisfying are the scandals involving regular people and the would-be-heroes, those who fall from grace without realizing their potential. Such is the case with a bygone NYC college basketball gambling controversy that ruined the reputations and athletic careers of more than nine promising players from Long Island University, City College, and New York University.
During that blighted 1951 season, top players were implicated in a point-shaving scandal that resulted in a 6 year shut down of the L.I.U. athletic program and the imprisonment of several players. Athletes from the three colleges took ‘fix’ bribes from Salvatore Sollazzo, a professional gambler with a prison record, to narrow point margins and in some cases, purposely throw games.
L.I.U. players, left and below, were booked on "charges of acting to 'throw' college basketball games," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 20, 1951.
When the point shaving scandal hit the papers in 1951, L.I.U. and CCNY were already two of the most watched teams in the country. A first-string player on the L.I.U. team was the nation’s leading scorer and CCNY players were riding the momentum of a great 1950 season, when they won both the NCAA championship and the National Invitation Tournament.
The images of these young men playing basketball seem out of place in a collection of historic photos documenting crime in Brooklyn during the mid-1900s. Many Brooklynites found something wrong about this picture in 1951, as well. Students interviewed during the wake of the scandal indicated that the schools didn’t do enough to support the players and capitalized on their talents without providing funding or adequate housing. It is no surprise that many of the players’ classmates and fans stood by the team and saw the boys as the unfortunate victims of bureaucrats and thugs like Sollazzo.
L.I.U. students protest in front of their school, demanding the reinstatement of the sports program and the players who confessed to accepting bribes.
In a 1998 interview
with the New York Times
, one of the players involved in the controversy acknowledged that he was
responsible for his own poor decisions but also noted,
"There were a lot of people involved besides the ballplayers. Nobody has addressed what was the coach's responsibility, what was the school's responsibility, what was the venue we played in's responsibility. I heard people make all kinds of bets at the Garden.”
In a February 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorial, Robert M. Grannis professed that the point-shaving scandal was not an isolated event but unfortunate evidence of a “national disease” and the decline of ethics and the complacency of young people. In fact, gambling was so widespread at the time that printed betting cards like this one (right) circulated around Madison Square Garden like popcorn.
Grannis indicated that while upsetting, the scandal was anything but surprising, “it is as natural to the spiritual code of and morals of 1951 as fleas are to a dog.” When it was all over, Sollazzo was again behind bars, several players were barred from the NBA, and the ideals of a community were shattered. And perhaps none of us are truly absolved, as purveyors of scandal, we too get caught up in the momentum of the game and in the wheels of the machinery of the gossip mill.