When the phone rings at 2 a.m., it’s a pretty safe bet there isn’t good news, as Bill found out that December in 1960. The agent on the other end said, “Dr. Friday, I need to see you right away.” No, it couldn’t wait until the next morning. UNC President Bill Friday put on a pot of coffee and awaited the lawman’s late night visit.
The Dixie Classic basketball tournament was being played in Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum that week. Started by legendary N.C. State basketball coach Everett Case, the event was sold out. Long after the game was over, as freshly showered players were leaving, a shady character sidled up to an N.C. State star. The Wolfpack player had been given money to throw the game so the other team would win, but he didn’t do it and the mobster pulled a gun and threatened to kill him. Fortunately, nothing serious happened.
The annual Dixie Classic had developed a following so large that it had become a major betting event in Las Vegas, with large sums wagered on game outcomes. Organized crime was involved. UNC President Bill Friday was alarmed to learn what was happening and immediately called a halt to the popular event. Fans were outraged.
I couldn’t help but remember Friday’s recounting this story as we learned the Supreme Court had ruled that states could decide whether to allow betting on sports within their borders. It was comforting to hear Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger say our state would take its time making that call.
There are many questions raised from this ruling. What if the state of Florida, home to ACC members Florida State and Miami, decides to allow betting, but North Carolina — with Duke, Wake Forest, UNC and N.C. State — doesn’t? Would it be illegal to bet on games involving teams from our state? And would it be illegal for North Carolinians to place their bets using Florida bookies? Will our state quite literally be forced to approve, like we faced regarding the lottery, if our neighbors approve and we don’t? What problems would result if one state approves sports betting only on pro sports, while others approve for pro and college events? We think our highest court launched an air ball.
Many states already hear the ka-ching of tax income from the betting. Some leagues are also salivating over a share, since shoe deals, TV rights, game proceeds and big donations obviously aren’t enough. The Rice Commission just recently affirmed the 1989 predictions Bill Friday and Father Ted Hesburgh made with The Knight Commission. College basketball is already corrupt enough, what with “one-and-done” revolving doors, sports agents funneling money to players and their families, colleges holding fake classes and the abuse of so-called amateur athletes. We want to extend this to every sport?
If the Dixie Classic taught us anything it was that crime always follows the easy money. It’s a pretty safe bet that North Carolina might as well hang out welcome signs to organized crime syndicates if we approve sports betting. I’m not being a prude, just a realist.
The wisdom of the ages is true: Just because we can doesn’t mean we should authorize betting on sports events in our state. Yogi would say this is déjà vu all over again.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.