It was inevitable. The Washington Post reported yesterday that a convicted felon has told federal officials he paid players on the 1978-79 Boston College basketball team between $1,000 and $2,000 per game to fix games. The scandals that scarred the college game in the early '50s and early '60s may be happening again. It would be no surprise. More powerful today than ever are the forces that ruined Ralph Beard's life.
I thought of Ralph the other day when I saw one of those brilliant beer commercials that combine humor with faces and names that remind us of old times when we had fun.The commercial featured some old Celtics, and I suppose thousands of people were taken back to the glory days of basketball's greatest dynasty.
I saw Bob Cousy there, and I grew sad.
Forever linked in my mind are Cousy and Ralph Beard.
They were contemporaries in college basketball, Cousy at Holy Cross and Beard at Kentucky. They were guards of uncommon ability. Each was all-America, each was college basketball's player of the year. "Ralph Beard is as near to perfection as a player can get," said his coach, Adolph Rupp. As a rookie in the NBA in 1950, Beard was all-pro. Cousy, a year younger, was a step behind Beard. Everyone believed they would be the NBA's two best guards for the next decade.
But in 1951, Ralph Beard's world fell apart. He admitted taking money from gamblers. He denied shaving points. He took the money, he said, and then played like hell, anyway.He was arrested by New York detectives. The 1950-51 season was his last as a pro. He never played again. The federal judge who had given Beard a suspended sentence and probation once sent him a telegram warning him to not play so much as YMCA basketball.
Cousy, untouched by the scandals, went on to the Hall of Fame. So whenever I see Cousy, whenever I hear people talk about how great Cousy was, I think of Ralph Beard, who was seduced by gamblers, who was convinced that $500 was his rightful share of a gambler's winnings -- Ralph Beard, who lived for one thing only, to play basketball, who was ordered by a federal judge never to bounce a basketball again.
Beard is a vice president of a pharmaceutical company today, a decent and honorable man who worked for a while as a scout for the Kentucky Colonels pro basketball team. Thirty years after the scandals -- Beard was only one of dozens of players named from dozens of schools from coast to coast -- he yet lives with the pain.
"The summer isn't too bad," Beard said a year ago. "But the winters, when it's basketball, are hell."
I like Ralph Beard. We have played gold. I have written dozens of stories about his half-brother, Frank, the pro golfer. I have written about Ralph's son, Scott, now a college golfer. I believe him when he says he never fixed a game. He cared too much about his art to despoil it.
But he took the money. A good man took a gambler's money. He took it because it didn't seem that bad a thing to do. Shop owners in Lexington gave him discounts on clothes, some saying he didn't have to pay at all. Men who shook his hand after games left $20 bills in his palm. When Ralph made a remark in the papers that he was running out of chewing gum, here came 12 dozens boxes of gum in the mail. If a man won some money betting on Ralph's talent, it seemed almost right the kid get part of it.
Gambling was a big part of everyday life.
The Louisville Courier-Journal, in news stories, reported the bookmakers' point spreads -- on high school basketball games.
So is gambling accepted today, even eagerly embraced by newspapers of distinction, including this one. We run the point-spread information. Gambling on sports events is illegal everywhere outside Nevada. We run columns advising our readers how to bet on sports events. Maybe we do that because we believe our readers will fly to Vegas before they bet. Or maybe we do that because it is the easy thing to do, to satisfy our customers who (we say) "want to know this information."
Newspapers don't print everything people want to know. We make decisions based on principle. We don't run the daily price of angel dust. We don't do a consumer's report on prostitutes.
But we run so much gambling information that a kid looking at the paper might think gambling is a part of sports.
I went into the University of Maryland locker room five minutes after the Terps beat American University by 30 points.
The first words I heard were from Reggie Jackson, a starting guard on Maryland's nationally ranked team.
"What was the point spread on the game?" Jackson said. "Twenty-five or what? Did we beat the spread?"
Innocent, I'm sure. Gamblers know the spread going into the game. The point is, here's a college kid talking about the spread in the locker room. The spread is part of his life, just as it was part of Ralph Beard's life.
We see Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder, whose reputation was made as a gambler, working on national television weekly, given legitimacy by association with the National Football League. This newspaper runs "Jimmy the Greek" point spreads on NFL games. Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports have treated him as a warm curiosity. He is a symbol of gambling and sports.
Another college basketball scandal is inevitable. As Ralph Beard was treated royally 30 years ago, today's players have come to accept wining and dining as their due. Coaches under relentless pressure to win bend the rules, if not break them. Recruiting is a tasteless, demeaning process in which money often changes hands. In this atmosphere of deceit, the wonder is not that Boston College players may have taken money to fix games.
The wonder is that it took so long.