Three and a half stars
A six-part series premiering Oct. 6 on Netflix.
For as long as we’ve had modern-day sports we’ve had infamous scandals, from the 1919 Black Sox through to the NFL suspending star players Alex Karras and Paul Hornung for gambling in 1963, through Pete Rose and Tonya Harding and Lance Armstrong, not to mention doping in track and field, SMU football getting the “death penalty” for the 1987 season, baseball’s steroid era and the horrors of the sexual assault scandals at Penn State and in USA Gymnastics.
And that’s hardly a complete list.
We’re all too familiar with the myriad of black eyes on our favorite sports — and yet there are scandals we might have forgotten, scandals we might never have known about. Do you remember the 1994 Arizona State basketball point-shaving scandal, or the pairs figure skating controversy at the 2002 Winter Olympics? Have you ever heard of “Lucky” Luciano Moggi, the Italian football director who manipulated matchups to favor his Juventus club? Or how about Hansie Cronje, the South African cricket captain who was second in popularity only to Nelson Mandela in his home country before it was revealed he was involved in fixing international games?
The six-part Netflix limited docuseries “Bad Sport” digs deep into the dark side of the games, as we see the beauty and pure competition of sports sullied by athletes, officials and shadowy outsiders who are motivated by political self-interest or blind ambition or greed or a deadly blending of two or three of the aforementioned. The producers who gave us “Don’t F**k with Cats” now tell the stories of a number of figures who scurried down the rabbit hole into a world of corruption and paid high prices for their crimes and indiscretions.
Episode 1, titled “Hoop Schemes,” is maybe the most engrossing entry in the series, as we revisit the 1994 Arizona State University basketball point-shaving scandal, in a true-life story reminiscent of the James Caan classic “The Gambler” with elements of “Goodfellas.” I’m always amazed at how the documentarians in Netflix crime series can get central figures to sit down for in-depth interviews — often after they’ve served time and/or seen their lives ruined by their actions. This time we hear from admirably honest and deeply remorseful former ASU players Steven “Hedake” Smith and Isaac “Ice” Burton, who conspired with bookmakers to shave points in a series of games. Orchestrating the fix from afar was one Joe Gagliano, who says, “In January, 1994, I was trading bond futures at the Board of Chicago [at the age of 22] . . . making an absurd amount of money at a young age.”
A campus bookie at ASU who had become acquainted with Gagliano called him and said, “Joe, I got a fix.” Turns out Smith, the star point guard for ASU, had accrued a sizable gambling debt — and he was told the debt would be forgiven AND he could make some cash if he would tank in a couple of games. Gagliano bet a whopping $1.1 million on the first fixed game and continued to let it ride, at one point risking more than $5 million on the ASU-Washington game — in the process dropping the line in Vegas from ASU -12 to ASU -3. That drastic line move and the fact Smith and his co-conspirator Burton were dropping thousands on diamonds, cars, clothes and shoes attracted the attention of the feds. Gagliano, Smith and Burton all wound up doing time.
Subsequent episodes chronicle the misadventures and misdeeds of a variety of figures from various sports, including:
• Randy Lanier, a professional race car driver who competed at the highest levels in events such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and finished 10th as a rookie driver at the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 — all while he was spearheading a massive international pot smuggling operation.
• Luciano Moggi, the chief managing director for the prestigious Juventus Football Club in Italy, who was caught on wiretaps in the mid-2000s putting pressure on higher-ups with the referees’ commission to ensure favorably inclined officials would work matches involving Juventus.
• Tommy Burns, a hardscrabble wise guy who killed a number of valuable show horses via electrocution so the owners could make insurance claims in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Says Burns: “A woman walked up to me, says, ‘Hey, can you kill my horse for me,’ [like she was saying], ‘Can you cut my grass for me?’ ” Good God.
• Hansie Cronje, the greatly admired captain of the South African national cricket team in the 1990s, who shocked his countrymen when he admitted his involvement in match-fixing with an Indian betting
“Bad Sport” also revisits the figure skating controversy at the 2002 Winter Olympics, when the Canadian pairs duo of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier clearly outperformed the Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze — but the Russians won the gold, with the French judge casting the deciding vote. The judge soon admitted she had been pressured to vote for the Russian pair, then reversed her story, then we heard about the alleged involvement of a Russian mobster, and eventually TWO gold medals were awarded, which managed to appease everyone and nobody at the same time.
One wonders if there’s any sport that hasn’t been touched by scandal by this point. Maybe cornhole or pickleball.