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May 31st, 2016, 3:20am
How sports betting became enshrined in a nation's fears

David Carruthers and others are being prosecuted over internet gambling under a 45 year old Wire Act. But it's a legal grey area, says Harry Wallop

The United States has always had an ambivalent attitude to sports betting. Ever since American baseball star "Shoeless" Joe Jackson shocked the nation by admitting to taking bribes in the 1919 World Series, the country's law enforcers have taken a dim view of people involved in betting on the big baseball or football games.

Many analysts and shareholders have reacted like the boy who accosted Shoeless Joe as he walked out of the courthouse. He tugged his hero's sleeve and said: "Say it ain't so Joe, say it ain't so."

It is so, for David C arruthers of BetonSports, one of the UK's biggest online gambling companies. He is cooling his heels in Seagoville Federal Correction Institute, Dallas, awaiting a court hearing on Friday to hear whether he will get bail.

And it could be so for a whole host of UK executives, who took legal advice that their online gambling operations were very unlikely to result in any problems.

Mr Carruthers and 10 other individuals all former employees of BetonSports have been charged with felony violations of federal laws relating in part to the 1961 Wire Act. This was a piece of legislation designed to once and for all crack down on corruption in college and professional sports.

The biggest scandal of them all was the 1919 World Series, when the Chicago White Sox threw games after being bribed an episode immortalised in the John Cusack film Eight Men Out.

But there have been plenty of other scandals including in 1926 when the two biggest stars of the day, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, were charged with fixing a game.

And in the 1950s there were a series of scandals in college basketball games, where players were accused of so called point shaving, where players ensured that they won the game but limited their margin of victory. College players, being amateurs, were considered to be particularly vulnerable to being bribed by professional gamblers, especially members of the Mafia, who used interstate bets to launder money. Most of the players received suspended sentences unlike their counterparts 30 years later.

In 1981 Rick Kuhn, a former player at Boston College was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of point shaving the longest penalty ever imposed on a college athlete. Mr Kuhn got away with serving just over two years a sentence that could easily be put in the shade by those implicated in the BetonSports arrests.

Mr Carruthers, and his fellow accused, are being pursued under the Wire Act, intended to stop interstate gambling over the telephone. The law is now being used to crack down on internet gambling a move being championed by several Republican senators and lobbyists from the Christian Right. However, the law is highly ambiguous, and many find these attempts to use the law to attack internet gambling suspect.

Nigel Parsons, an analyst at Williams de Broe, says: "The Wire Act was never anything to do with being moralistic. It was all to do with controlling The Mob."

And neither analysts nor lawyers can agree on whether internet poker games, for instance, are outlawed under the legislation.

A test case in 2001 suggested casino style games were in fact legal over the internet. This has given great comfort to UK companies such as Partygaming and 888 which have millions of American customers for casino games but avoid sports betting.

Legislators have also gone out of their way to exempt horse racing from  any crackdown. Indeed, the anti online
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