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Did a Betting Pool Cross the Line?

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Should sports reporters be allowed to bet on events they cover? Of course not, especially since most sports betting is illegal. But does that extend to a pool, common in many newsrooms and offices?

Reader Bill Sullivan of the District raised the question after a blogger, Sean Jensen of AOL Sports, said he participated in a "high price" pool while covering the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., with renowned Post columnist Tom Boswell; Leonard Shapiro, a former Post staffer who covers golf on contract; and John Feinstein, a best-selling author and Post freelancer.

Sullivan called the pool "disturbing" and said it "would appear to be a deeply serious breach of journalism ethics," especially because "Boswell and Shapiro had criticized athletes for gambling because it has a corrupting influence on the sport.

"Do Post editors condone this sort of conduct -- particularly since the bets were placed on an event the reporters were covering for the paper? How much was wagered and how long has it been going on? How do the reporters justify their moral criticisms of others when they themselves engage in the same illegal behavior?"

The pool is a tradition going back about 25 years in a house rented by Boswell, Shapiro and other sportswriters who cover the Masters, Boswell said. Feinstein joined about 15 years ago. Jensen was the new guy in the house.

The stakes were $50 apiece for five people. Boswell said there are "a bunch of silly categories and no one wins much." Shapiro was the big winner, with a total of $103 in three categories. Boswell won $16.67. Feinstein won nothing. "Except for a few horse races or a [personal] golf game, I've never bet on anything else in my life," Boswell said. Shapiro said the same.

Shapiro's and Boswell's articles have criticized high-stakes gambling as it affected players and managers who presumably could affect the outcome of games. Boswell said the house is not a high-stakes party pad but the "milk and Oreos" house, where a six-pack of beer bought at the tournament's start still had three left at the end. "We come back after the day and watch highlights and tease each other about" their pool picks.

Feinstein, in an e-mail, wrote, "NO, I've never bet on anything during my years at The Post. In fact, this year I didn't even participate in the pool because I was too tired to stay up. I put up the 50 bucks as a courtesy to the other guys and they picked my team for me. I was the only one in the house to not win a dollar for the week. . . . This is done in houses all around Augusta for fun and laughs -- and is a way of giving everyone something to talk about during the week. As in, 'who had the low round today?' That's about as serious as it gets."

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for sports, said, "I'm confident that the small-scale pool in no way affected the coverage of the event and was a 25-year tradition that was started only to bolster camaraderie for those living together while covering the event. That said, we've stressed to our folks that prizes for these sorts of pools, including the NCAA tournament, should not involve cash, no matter how small the amount." The Post has no written rule on betting.

George Solomon, a former Post sports editor and ESPN ombudsman who is now a University of Maryland journalism professor, sees no problem with "a recreational pool"; he was in the Masters pool when entering cost $10, and he went for Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Betting "a lot of money on a team or individual is always wrong," he said.

Malcolm Moran, who holds the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Pennsylvania State University, said, "I wouldn't call [the Masters pool] serious. For myself, I don't get involved in pools."

Moran, a former sports journalist at the New York Times, Newsday and USA Today, believes there ought to be rules as there are at the Times, which states in its ethics policy: "To avoid an appearance of bias, no member of the sports department may gamble on any sports event, except for occasional recreational wagering on horse racing (or dog racing or jai alai). This exception does not apply to staff members who cover such racing or regularly edit that coverage." The Times' prohibition does not apply to pools, said Craig Whitney, standards editor.

Longtime Post horseracing writer Andrew Beyer, now a freelancer, does gamble and writes about it, as do many racing writers. Moran said, "Just because it's in the culture doesn't mean it's the right thing to do." Beyer once won $200,000 and wrote about it. Now that gives me serious pause. Beyer did not respond to a phone message.

Many newsrooms -- like many offices -- have sports pools; I never stopped them when I was an editor. The Post's internal NCAA pool was changed this year to make the top prize an iPod instead of cash. Just as well; a company lawyer won it.

The Masters pool is not a grave ethical matter, but The Post should have written rules to guide sports journalists on betting. This answer didn't please Sullivan, who wrote, "Reporters go after others with zeal while believing that the rules don't apply to them and that they are above reproach. Accountability for thee but not for me."

Maybe the Masters bets next year should be in Oreos, not cash.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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