Sports bribery turns fifty

Dr Ryan M. Rodenberg

Posted: June 27, 2014

Fifty years ago this month, the Sports Bribery Act of 1964 became law in the United States.

As the primary federal statute pertaining to sports corruption, the statute is central to my academic research. To probe the impetus for the law, I recently travelled to the National Archives in Washington, DC, the official repository of the American government. I met with a reference librarian and explained to him that I was investigating the Sports Bribery Act’s legislative history.

“I’ve never heard of that,” he said.

I was not surprised. The Sports Bribery Act is relatively obscure. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a stand-alone unit devoted to sports bribery, the law is only implicated occasionally. The most recent example involved point-shaving at the University of San Diego in American collegiate basketball.

In relevant part, the Sports Bribery Act reads as follows:




§ 224. Bribery in sporting contests

(a)     Whoever carries into effect, attempts to carry into effect, or conspires with any other person to carry into effect any scheme in commerce to influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest with knowledge that the purpose of such scheme is to influence by bribery that contest, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

The librarian escorted me upstairs to a vast room. Thick books lined the walls. The tomes stretched at least four meters up. There were several ladders. In the middle of the room, other researchers were huddled around tables, poring over material they retrieved from the collections. Neither pens nor cameras were allowed. I had surrendered both downstairs, leaving them in a tiny locker. Any note-taking must be done in pencil on pieces of scratch paper.

The librarian directed me to the Congressional Record from the 87th and 88th Congress. Every word (officially) uttered on the Senate and House floor from 1962 to 1964 was memorialized. I pored through the books and got a hit. On September 12, 1962, a draft bill “to prohibit schemes in interstate or foreign commerce to influence by bribery the outcome of sporting contests” was introduced. Senator Kenneth Keating, a Republican from New York, sponsored the bill. He opined: “the bill is essential in police efforts to apprehend and control major gambling operations such as the ones that have wracked college basketball twice within the past 12 years.”

There were a number of other finds among the volumes. I learned that Byron White, a future United States Supreme Court Justice, wrote a March 23, 1962 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then-Deputy Attorney General White observed: “[t]his bill is obviously an attempt to deal in some measure with the criminal element that has infiltrated our Nation’s sporting contests.”

My review of the records revealed a half-dozen other Sports Bribery Act-related statements in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. For example, on January 22, 1964, Ohio Representative William McCulloch minced no words: “as never before, American athletes are now being subjected to temptation by some of America’s most despicable element, the bribers, fixers, and gamblers.”

Satisfied, I proceeded to do a quick search of court records for criminal indictments under the statute. There were a handful of cases. In college basketball, examples stemmed from point-shaving involving Boston College, Tulane University, Northwestern University, University of Toledo, and Arizona State University. Boxing was well-represented. Horse racing too. The 1976 case of United States v. Walsh specifically discussed the Sports Bribery Act in the context of horse racing:

While we recognize that the primary purpose of the legislation was to assist the ‘Federal Government in the assault on organized crime,’ the legislative history supports the proposition that [the Sports Bribery Act] was intended to ‘include players and officials as well as gamblers and fixers.’ The legislative history further indicates that the Congress was of the opinion that the infiltration of sports by organized gambling could be materially inhibited ‘by punishing any players or officials as well as gamblers who attempt to corrupt…for personal gain.’  

Even ice skating and ice dancing came up in my search. From the judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, I found the following indictment under the Sports Bribery Act:

TOKHTAKHOUNOV, a/k/a “Taiwanchik,” a/k/a “Alik,” the defendant, and others known and unknown, unlawfully, willfully and knowingly did combine, conspire, confederate and agree together and with each other to carry into effect a scheme in commerce to influence by bribery a sporting contest, to wit, the pairs figure skating and ice dancing competitions in the 2002 Winter Olympics, with knowledge that the purpose of such scheme was to influence by bribery that contest, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 224.

My sports bribery birthday-related scavenger hunt at the National Archives was a success. I now have a better understanding of the Sports Bribery Act’s foundations. At a time when the specter of match-fixing, illegal gambling, and sports manipulation is growing, my sense is that the statute, as the country’s strongest piece of sport-specific anti-corruption legislation, will see more activity in the USA moving forward.

About Dr Ryan M. Rodenberg

Ryan M. Rodenberg (@sportslawprof) is an assistant professor of forensic sports law analytics at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA.  His academic work can be found on Google Scholar and SSRN.