In yesterday’s Jumbo Package, we reported on a proposed rule change for 2019. The NCAA’s subcommittee on wagering is kicking around the introduction of a uniform injury report. We said we would cover this a bit more later, but the comments indicated that a lot of people were curious as to the reasoning here. So, no time like the present. Let’s get to it.
The NCAA’s reasoning was set forth in one terse sentence: introducing an injury report helps protect the integrity of the game. No one is blind to the effects that sports wagering can or does have on the game; just like aspects of the game — completely within a player’s control — can likewise impact sports wagering.
The injury report requirement goes way back, to the NFL in 1947. That date is not a coincidence either: it coincides with the era of legalized sports gambling in Las Vegas and the first mob-related casino construction in 1946 — Bugsy Siegel’s iconic Flamingo. But, Atlantic City had gambling in place for decades, and there was no rule that had affected the reporting of injuries. Nor was mere fear of organized crime involvement enough to do so; the rule wasn’t triggered out of alarmism or an abundance of caution. In 1946 there had been an issue with a player suddenly and suspiciously sitting out, and then subsequent suspicion of nefarious actors’ involvement. So, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell acted immediately and made the requirement of an injury report mandatory for all teams, every week.
The reasoning is that the books or organized crime — proprietors and line-setters of the very places where sports betting occurred — could not then rig the action through bribery or intimidating players with last-minute “injuries.”
But, this system is absolutely ripe for exploitation by tight-lipped programs that don’t wish to show their hands. Though teams can be fined, and they are required to accurately list injuries to the league, not every one complies — in fact, many admit to gaming the system.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who resigned last January after 15 seasons with the team, acknowledges telling a fib or two to try to protect his players.
”Sometimes when a guy had an ankle (injury), I might list it as a knee, just because I didn’t want people knowing where to take shots at my players,” Cowher says.
On the Patriots’ injury list, Brady has been listed as “probable” every week except one, late in the 2005 season, when he was listed as questionable. Under NFL guidelines, that means having a better than 50% chance of playing. Players listed as “questionable” are 50-50, “doubtful” means a 75% chance of not playing and “out” means just that.
But, the penalties are largely toothless; as toothless as they are confidential. The league has fined teams just 13 times in a decade-long span for lying about injury reports or manipulating the system, and there is no requirement to provide that information to the public. In fact, the NFL doesn’t disclose which teams were offenders nor what penalties the teams incurred.
The NBA followed the NFL’s suit, but in a different manner in 1988. Beginning that year Commissioner David Stern began compiling a Player Database — one which allows the league to conduct its own analyses of suspicious injuries and coach scratches based upon demographic and health information and minutes played.
Before the start of the NBA season, each team submits a detailed player profile for each member of the team with demographic and clinical information, including the permanent identification number, player position, height, weight, age, and years of NBA playing experience. Given the frequent turnover of an NBA team roster during the course of a season, this information is constantly being updated with player additions and subtractions. With the termination of the NBA season in June, statistical compilation is performed regarding exposures for games and playing minutes.
Following an ugly 2007 scandal, where official Tim Donaghy was convicted of fixing games with his whistle, the NBA began publicly reporting injuries in 2012, using the NFL’s model: ankle, foot, availability, etc.
The NHL’s rules are far more enigmatic, and that is by design. In the hours preceding a game, coaches must report if a player is on injured reserve, reassigned to an AHL franchise, or if the player is injured (among other availability statuses). If the player is injured, the reporting team need say nothing more than “upper body” or “lower body” — and doesn’t even have to provide an expected time frame. Thus, most coaches just list a player as day-to-day. The intentional vagueness is in place ostensibly for player safety: If a player has an ankle injury, you may vaguely list lower body to prevent targeting of the hurt player in a very fast, very violent contact sport.
There is an exploit within the system NHL though, and that is the “healthy scratch.” In the hour before a game begins when teams must list their lines and available players, a coach can bench a player that he has already reported as being healthy. Thus, a truly sketchy coach could sit his best player as a healthy scratch, for instance.
Healthy scratches are fairly common in hockey, and while injuries are part of the picture, players are most likely sent to the press box for the night because of disciplinary actions, experimentation with line combinations, or if a player is simply in a funk. Sitting that one game is often used as sit-in-timeout and public shaming for underperforming players.
But, the mother of all injury reports goes back to America’s first major sport and the home of its first major sports betting scandals: major league baseball. The iconic “DL” (the disabled list, which is now known as the injured list) dates all the way back to 1887. As baseball was increasingly become more popular and integral to the American psyche, so too did it become susceptible to corruption.
The first modern major league was formed in 1876, the National League. Just one year later, in 1877, the league’s best team and season-long leading Louisville Grays were paid to throw games (and the title) down the stretch.
The Grays were none-too-subtle either: They were up by 4 games with 20 to play...then proceeded to tank nine straight games. It got so bad, that the team’s own president conducted the investigation, and then turned in the four players that had actual telegrams explaining their roles in the scheme. And it was good money too: Each of the four received $100 a night for turning in a terrible effort. That is $2861.50 in 2018 dollars.
Having seen the National League and National Association both be burned by professional gambling and game fixing early in their existences, MLB tried very hard to reduce the temptation to fix games in an era where club presidents and managers were just as suspect as players. And, the Disabled List was born with modern MLB in 1903.
There have been additions to the rule over time, such as 1966’s introduction of a 15-day DL, but the 10-day regime etc. has largely been extant for the last century.
There you have it: why the injured list is an actual thing. As long as sports have been around, there have been bettors. And, as long as there have been bettors, there have been monied interests, crooks, criminals, and the underpaid or greedy who realized they can profit off of recreation.
The injury report is almost certain to be installed in the NCAA. And, though it will peeve the micromanagers of information like Saban and Kirby, it is a no-brainer.
Think about the impact that it would have had with the knowledge that Greg McElroy played the 2010 BCS Championship Game with broken ribs. Would Alabama been a -3.5 point favorite? What about the inverse and slightly more conspiratorial situation: Colt McCoy was injured all week too, and no one knew about it? Or, worse, he was being paid to exit at the first sign of plausible contact.
To this day, that does look to be one of the fishiest freak injuries you’ve ever seen. In the gambling age, how many people would have faith in the integrity of the outcome following this routine play:
To be clear, I’m not accusing the oft-injured McCoy of throwing the game or being on the take. By all accounts, it was a freak injury. But, try and tell people that when they laid 10:1 on Texas in the preseason, or put a few grand on the Longhorns to cover that 3.5.
So, even if an injury report has some impact on the players’ integrity, it serves a larger psychological purpose: no one likes rigged games.