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Varez Ward, Auburn, and Allegations of Point-Shaving: Where Do We Stand?

Shortly after Tony Barbee took the reins of the Auburn Men's Basketball program, he secured Varez Ward's commitment to transfer from Texas to play at Auburn. Suddenly, I became excited about the Auburn basketball program again. Ward, a highly sought-after high school recruit from nearby Montgomery, agreed to play for the Tigers in part because of his mother's medical condition. Everything Ward was doing seemed to be right. He sat out a season due to NCAA transfer rules and worked hard through an injury to become a starter. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction, until he along with teammate Chris Denson, were suspended for an unspecified "violation of team rules." Denson was soon allowed to return to the team.

In a shocking announcement on Thursday, it was revealed that Ward is currently the subject of an FBI investigation for point-shaving, revolving specifically around the Feb. 7 loss against Alabama and a loss to Arkansas on Jan. 25. The following is a brief primer on what point-shaving is, what laws and NCAA bylaws have been enacted to prevent the practice, and what it could mean for Ward and Auburn.

Sports Bribery (Game Fixing/Point-Shaving)

Sports bribery has been brought to light in recent years in sport and recreation law. In 2007, NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to a gambling scandal involving wire fraud and transmitting gambling tips, and he was sentenced in 2008 to 15 months in prison (Timanus, 2007; Pugmire, 2008). In 2009, several University of Toledo athletes were indicted by federal authorities for alleged involvement in point-shaving schemes in conjunction with Detroit men (Gilbert and Silka, 2009). Too, there have been numerous gambling incidents related to amateur sport, particularly with regard to the NCAA (Udovicic, 1998; Jones and Handel, 2002).

The influential NCAA has a keen interest in protecting the integrity of its sports product and frowns upon any sort of sport-related gambling whatsoever (NCAA, 2004; Crowley, 2006; McCarthy a, b 2007). Therefore, the NCAA has enacted a rules manual (called Bylaws) which the Indianapolis-based organization enforces vigorously at all three divisions of competition (Copeland, 2004; Rogers and Ryan, 2007). Many of its Bylaws relate to sports wagering. Other NCAA incidents included the University of Kentucky basketball team, which played no schedule for the 1952-53 season due to a point-shaving scandal that rocked the nation in 1951. Historically, collegiate sports gambling incidents abound and have included and affected schools such as Boston College (1978, 1996), Northwestern University (1994), and numerous others including several colleges and universities in Florida (McCallum and Hersch, 1997; Drape, 2003; Goldstein a,b,c,d, 2003; Grady & Clement, 2005; Maske, 2005; Merron, 2006; Gillispie, 2007; NCAA, n.d.).

Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act A federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, was enacted to stop the spread of state-authorized gambling and to protect the integrity of sporting events generally. Nevada, the only state at that time that had legalized sports gambling, was granted immunity from this federal law (also known as the Nevada or "Las Vegas loophole") which makes it unlawful for a governmental entity, or a person acting pursuant to the law of such an entity, to operate, sponsor, advertise, promote, license, or authorize a lottery, sweepstakes, or other betting, gambling, or wagering scheme based, directly or indirectly, on one or more competitive game in which amateur, Olympic or professional athletes participate. The states of Delaware, Montana and Oregon are also exempt from the Act which exempts pari-mutuel betting and jai alai games as well (Barlett and Steele, 2000; Slavin, 2002; Rychlak, mm2003/2004).

Implications for Ward and Auburn

First, we don't know where the investigation will lead. So for now, we will operate under the assumption that the allegations are true. (Calm down. We're just making this point for argument's sake. The point of this post is to analyze what Ward and Auburn are facing if the allegations are true. - Ed) Per reports from the usual sources, Auburn moved very quickly to report the rumors of point-shaving to the SEC, the NCAA, and the FBI. If true, the SEC and NCAA will most likely take this into consideration as a mitigating factor when it comes time to hand out sanctions if any. Why? The NCAA and SEC appreciate full, open cooperation from its member institutions. Other factors they will consider will be who asked Ward to attempt to throw games in exchange for money and what relationship, if any, they have with Auburn; whether any evidence of an actual exchange of money occurred; and whether Ward's actions were intentional and actually resulted in an altered game score.

Now, lets turn to the FBI investigation. To put it succinctly: They don't mess around. They are exceedingly good at what they do. They have subpoena power and the power to obtain warrants to search for any evidence reasonably (and most times, unreasonably) related to the alleged acts. If they discover evidence Ward was implicit in a scheme to reduce points scored in exchange for money, he could be looking at an extended stay in one of our many unpleasant federal prisons. Let's hope for his sake, that all this turns out to be false. As to whether or not all this will happen? We simply don't know right now, and we likely won't know until the FBI concludes its investigation, turns its official findings over to the U.S. Attorney's Office For The Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery, the SEC, and the NCAA. The FBI likes to take it's time when it can, so we could be waiting a while. Until then, all we can do is stay faithful fans to Coach Barbee, the team, and Auburn. Hopefully, they will not suffer collateral damage from this unfortunate situation.

War Eagle.