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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

James Wolfe's New Novel Explores NCAA's Worst Nightmare: A Fixed Championship Game

James Wolfe's novel How to Rig the NCAA Basketball Championship for Fun and Profit provides an account of how a referee could decide the outcome of college basketball's crown jewel event and get away with that crime. Sadly, the basic premise is not far-fetched: since the infamous 1951 scandal involving 32 players at seven schools (including powerhouses CCNY and Kentucky) there has been at least one major NCAA basketball point shaving case per decade and while the previous incidents have involved players, not referees, it is certainly conceivable that a referee could be involved in such activity; just four years ago, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to providing information to mob-affiliated gamblers and although there is no evidence that he fixed games his case revealed how difficult it would be to detect point shaving and/or other illegal activity conducted by an unethical referee.

While it is realistic to propose that the NCAA Basketball Championship could be fixed by a referee, some aspects of the scenario presented in Wolfe's novel are implausible, most notably the amount of money wagered by Wolfe's crooked referee, Stanley Osborn: a $1,000,000 bet would immediately shift the line and attract the attention of the authorities no matter how cleverly that action was "balanced" by Osborn's bookie. The novel is written in first person style, with Osborn describing how he went from being a scrupulous referee to a referee who manipulated dozens of games prior to fixing the outcome of the NCAA Championship Game. Osborn tries to justify his conduct (to himself and to the reader) by describing at length the flaws and corruption that are an inherent part of the way that the NCAA administrates big-time college sports in general and Division I basketball in particular. Osborn's plan is to fix the NCAA Championship Game and then escape from the authorities by creating a new identity for himself so that he can live a life of luxury on a tropical island. Osborn is not entirely motivated by greed; once he has made his escape he plans to reveal to the media exactly how he pulled off this caper and thus force the NCAA to initiate various reforms. Again, it is possible that a referee could fix a game or at least shave points but it stretches credulity to suggest that a referee could fix the NCAA Championship Game and then just scoot off to a tropical island without experiencing any repercussions, let alone make a clean getaway while announcing to the world exactly who he is and how he pulled off such a monumental crime. I am also not convinced that anyone with the audacity and lack of ethics necessary to fix one of the world's biggest sporting events would feel such a burning desire to reveal to the world how he did this with the expressed intention of ultimately improving college sports; that is not a motive that I have ever seen attributed to anyone involved in the various point shaving scandals that have taken place in the past several decades.

One of the most important aspects of writing engaging fiction is to convince the reader to buy the premise and suspend disbelief. How to Rig the NCAA Basketball Championship for Fun and Profit presents a scenario that is a bit far-fetched from my perspective--and from a technical standpoint the text would have benefited from proofreading to eliminate several typographical mistakes and grammatical errors--but in spite of these flaws it is a light and entertaining read. The book concludes with a manifesto of sorts written by Osborn explaining how he got away with fixing games and proposing reforms to improve the NCAA's administration of college sports. Nothing groundbreaking is presented in this material but I do agree with the basic sentiment that the NCAA is to some degree inherently corrupt because it is supposedly a non-profit, education-oriented enterprise but in fact it is generating huge amounts of money by elevating sports over academics. It seems like nearly every day we learn of a new scandal taking place at a big NCAA program and money is often at the root of these problems; schools are either cheating in various ways to try to win more games and make more money or they are covering up misconduct by various athletes/coaches because those athletes/coaches can potentially generate huge amounts of revenue. Wolfe's novel is a well-intentioned plea for a reassessment of how the NCAA functions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 AM

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At Sunday, March 18, 2012 2:17:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

David,

While the novel is probably mostly fiction, officiating in basketball has been a point of contention for decades.

Probably one of the more infamous examples involved UNLV, when they were rumored to have thrown the 1991 semifinal vs. Duke. Two of the players were found in a hot tub with a known game fixer. Several contested and questionable calls went Duke's way, none more critical than Anthony's fifth foul in the closing minutes. Both Johnson and Augmon were shell of themselves in the game. The game was suspicious enough to cause the Nevada sports books to take all games involving Nevada teams off the board for several years.

While we will probably never know the full truth, it does seem significant that those who probably knew much more about the situation than you or I reacted so strongly to the UNLV situation. The bookmakers, NCAA, and the government certainly acted "as if" the game had been fixed, whether it was or not.

 
At Sunday, March 18, 2012 3:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

Wolfe's novel is fiction by definition but it is based very much on reality in the sense that, as I pointed out in my review, there have been numerous point shaving scandals in NCAA history.

I agree with you about UNLV's loss to Duke. I have no inside information about that game but I always thought that it looked suspicious because UNLV played so far below their normal standards (and, as you note, because of the unsavory connection between some of UNLV's players and a "known game fixer").

 

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