09/26/2012 10:19 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Sports, Gambling, and Referees

The poor performance of the replacement referees in National Football League games is a point of conversation around every water cooler, bar, and Sunday School class. The weird determination in Monday night's game which awarded the Seattle Seahawks a touchdown, despite the fact that a Green Bay Packers player apparently caught the football in the end zone, has been discussed far and wide. But for me, criminologist that I am, the real danger to the game is not just in the poor referee performance.

The worst kept secret regarding professional and collegiate sports is the heavy presence of big-time gambling and gamblers. I am not talking about office pools or friendly wagers on the outcome of a particular game. I am talking about the multi-billion dollar worldwide industry in sports betting. The mammoth amount of serious wagering on sports events is well documented. The NCAA basketball tournament sets records each March in the total dollar amount changing hands between gamblers. The Super Bowl provides a forum for billions of dollars in wagers. The Professional Golf Association, NASCAR, Major League Baseball and other sports associations provide fodder for the gambling industry.

The day-to-day, week-to-week sports betting activity is huge, and the bets are not only about which team wins and which loses. One can gamble on the spread of the final scores of football or basketball games, called the "point spread." Odds-makers set the odds, saying "Seattle is a 3-point favorite over Green Bay." Or, "the Lakers are a 7-point favorite over the Knicks." Gamblers can choose whether or not to bet Green Bay plus 10 points, or the Knicks and 7 points over the Lakers. If the Lakers win by only 6 points, the gambler who took the Knicks and the points wins. If Green Bay loses by 4 points, the gambler who took the Seattle Seahawks wins. It can get a lot more complicated than that.

Gamblers have sought ways to control the outcome of a game and the point spread. Gamblers have tried to pay players to "throw a game" or influence the final point spread. A basketball player can influence things by "accidently" throwing a pass out of bounds at a key juncture late in a game, or purposely missing free throws, for instance. A quarterback can throw a pass incomplete, resulting in the failure of his team to reach field goal range, especially after the winning or losing outcome of the game has been settled and the only issue is the point spread. These are just two easy examples how a player could have some role in determining the outcome of a game in favor of a gambling interest, and happily such instances have been rare.

But professional and collegiate sports organizations have known for many years that the biggest threat to their game is in the area of officiating. Referees have incredible influence over the games they officiate. In football, for instance, holding can be called on virtually every play. In basketball the charge-block call can legitimately go either way in many cases. An official who has a financial stake in a game can change the momentum or scoring opportunity without much chance of being caught at it. Even with instant replay the football holding call or the charge-block call in basketball can be ambiguous.

The NCAA and NFL and NBA have taken strong strides to protect the games from such corrupting influences. In baseball, the scandal of the "Black Sox" early in the 20th century led professional baseball to establish strong anti-gambling rules. Just ask Pete Rose. Counselors and consultants speak to athletes at every level to warn about fraternization with gamblers.

What makes this topic so timely today is the disturbing performance of the "replacement referees" in National Football League games this season. The NFL league leaders have responded to rather modest demands of the professional officiating staff they have developed, trained, and utilized by locking them out. In their place the NFL hired inexperienced men to take their place. The outcome of some games has been determined by the ineptness of the replacement referees. Who knows how point spreads have been affected. Players' safety has been jeopardized.

But what should strike fear in the hearts of the professional sports league is the possibility that a poorly trained and paid part time amateur referee can make a crucial 4th-quarter call in the end zone, or call holding on a 3rd-and-long which reverses a crucial first down and therefore the outcome of a game.

I have no reason to believe that this has happened. But when an entire contingent of professional referees is summarily discarded and replaced by unknown amateurs, risks to everyone interested in the games are heightened. I am waiting for the most interested of all football followers to weigh in on the issue... the gamblers.