O’Bannon Decision – Nothing and Everything Has Changed; Locke Involved in MLB Fix?

 

obannon vs ncaa

Patrick Hruby
More from Patrick

 

Nothing And Everything Has Changed

www.sportsonearth.com
Not to say I told you so, but: I told you so. Federal judge Claudia Wilken issued a ruling last Friday in the landmark antitrust case brought by former University of California, Los Angeles basketball player Ed O’Bannon and others against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, determining that the association illegally prohibits campus athletes from profiting from the use of their names, images and likenesses in video games and television broadcasts.

What does Wilken’s 99-page decision and accompanying injunction order mean for amateurism? For the future of college sports? Glad you asked:

V-Day! Let economic freedom ring! Brett Hundley can ask UCLA for a salary — and a car! The next Johnny Manziel can sign as many autographs-for-cash as he likes! Missy Franklin doesn’t have to choose between appearing in commercials and swimming at school, and the University of Oklahoma’s pasta police can hand in their badges and their guns! Amateurism is finally dead. College athletes finally get to enjoy the same basic rights of American citizenship as the rest of us. Huzzah!

Slow down. We’re not there just yet.

Um, okay, then how about this: college sports are doomed! No more women’s rowing scholarships! The University of Alabama will now spend $200 million a year on football, and hock its English department so it can afford to outbid Auburn University for a third string cornerback! Disgusted fans will stop watching! The Big Ten will drop down to Division III, just as the lawyer who writes Jim Delany’s legal declarations promised!

Nope, that’s not happening, either.

Wait. I thought the O’Bannon lawsuit was The Big One. The case that will change college sports forever, ending amateurism as we know it. It’s not?

Not quite. After five years of legal wrangling and a three-week bench trial, Wilken issued an injunction prohibiting the NCAA from enforcing any rules that restrict schools from offering big-time football and men’s basketball players a “limited share” of the money generated from the use of their names, images and likenesses (NILs) in video games and television broadcasts.

So college athletes can now be paid?

Yes.

But those payments are limited?

Very limited. Starting in 2016 and under the terms of Wilken’s injunction, the NCAA and its member institutions cannot enforce any rules that would prevent schools from:

* Increasing the financial value of athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance via stipends;

* Depositing as much as $5,000 a year per athlete — drawn from NIL revenues — into a trust fund that would pay out to said athletes upon graduation and/or the expiration of their playing eligibility.

In other words, big-time football and men’s basketball players soon will be free to receive cost-of-attendance stipends while they’re in school, and as much as $25,000 in deferred compensation after they leave?

Pretty much.

Are schools being forced to give athletes bigger stipends and deferred compensation?

Nope. For that matter, the NCAA doesn’t have to pass new rules: a) capping stipends at the full cost of school attendance; b) capping deferred compensation at $5,000 a year per athlete; c) preventing athletes from borrowing against the value of their deferred compensation while in school. But given the association’s self-proclaimed core value of price-fixing via amateurism, it probably will do just that.

Did Wilken strike down the NCAA rules preventing individual athletes from cashing in on their NILs via commercial endorsements — for example, a star quarterback lending his smiling face to an advertisement for a local car dealer, or someone like Franklin selling signed photographs?

Nuh-uh. Those are still violations. Even though O’Bannon’s lawyers asked for an injunction allowing commercial athlete NIL use.

Are former players like O’Bannon potentially getting any money?

Again, no — O’Bannon and the other former college athletes named in the suit, like NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell, surrendered their claim to damages prior to the trial in order to have the case heard by Wilken alone, as opposed to a jury.

Wait a second. The major college conferences just voted for NCAA legislative changes that will give them more latitude to set their own financial rules and give athletes greater benefits. Association president Mark Emmert already has pushed for a $2,000 cost-of-attendance stipend, while the presidents of the Big Ten and Pac-12 schools have endorsed stipends and other small, athlete-friendly reforms like four-year guaranteed scholarships. What are schools actually losing here?

Beyond a potential extra $25,000 in cash — about the cost of a new Toyota Camry — per major college basketball or football player? Nothing.

So why is everyone acting as though the O’Bannon case is such a big deal?

Because Wilken’s injunction is only half the story. Actually, not even half. More like a footnote. The real news is in her decision, and the headline is as follows: as a legal defense theory, amateurism is now about as useful as Zoroastrianism.

Remember: this is an antitrust case. Antitrust law exists to encourage marketplace competition and discourage the formation of price-fixing monopolies and cartels. When prospective employers out-bid each other to offer you the highest salary or stores slash prices to entice you to buy a new cell phone, that’s good; when a single entity or collusive group uses overwhelming market power to limit salaries or charge extra, that’s Comcast bad.

Enter the NCAA. For decades, everyone from former association president/architect Walter Byers to one of the association’s own expert O’Bannon trial witnesses has noted the obvious: the NCAA’s member schools conspire to cap compensation for otherwise valuable college athlete labor at the value of athletic scholarships. Imagine that you’re an emergency room doctor. Or an athletic director. If every hospital or school in America agreed to only pay you in room, tuition and board — and if you took a dollar more, you’d be suspended from working anywhere — would you accept it? Or would go find a lawyer?

Such is the basic situation facing college athletes. Only the NCAA has very cleverly redefined college students who are very good at running and jumping — but still, it should be noted, American citizens — as “student-athletes” and “amateurs,” and therefore undeserving of the same protections under antitrust law the rest of us take for granted. Amazingly enough, a long line of federal judges have bought this argument. Bought it so thoroughly that collusion-via-amateurism had never been put on actual trial. Not until the O’Bannon case.

Under antitrust law, marketplace restraints that would otherwise be considered illegal — like limiting college athletes’ freedom to negotiate and enter into contracts both with schools and other interested parties — are sometimes allowed, provided they’re procompetitive. What does that mean? Basically, a procompetitive restriction is one that’s necessary for a product or industry to exist or thrive in the first place.

(Example I’ve used before: Flash drive manufacturers agree to a USB standard, but compete on the basis of memory size and price. The courts approve. Why? Without a collective standard, the overall market for computer memory peripherals would be harmed).

During the O’Bannon trial, the NCAA put forth a number of procompetitive justifications for amateurism — arguments that were remarkably similar to the ones made by status quo-favoring college coaches and athletic directors on a near-daily basis. In her decision, Wilken demolished each and every one:

* Competitive balance: Without amateurism, the association claimed, rich schools would be able to dominate on-field competition by outspending rivals for the most talented high school recruits. Wilken noted that this already happens — only instead of paying their workforce a competitive wage, schools simply funnel cash into multimillion-dollar coaching salaries and lavish, gold-plated facilities.

Oh, and if the NCAA was truly concerned about Alabama’s financial advantages vis-a-vis Troy University, it would do a whole lot more to share revenues between the power conference schools and everyone else.

“The fact that high-revenue schools are able to spend freely in these other areas cancels out whatever leveling effect the restrictions on student-athlete pay might otherwise have,” Wilken wrote in her decision. “The NCAA does not do anything to rein in spending by the high-revenue schools or minimize existing disparities in revenue and recruiting.”

* Education: In a pre-trial brief, the NCAA argued that amateurism helps integrate athletics with its core mission of academics — largely by ensuring that college athletes participate in sports as “students rather than professionals,” which makes them spend their time “doing what students do rather than trying to make as much money as possible, which is what professionals do.”

In other words: if we pay athletes, they’ll spend less time studying and more time playing and practicing.

Problem No. 1: as the Northwestern University unionization case has made clear, big-time college athletes already can spend 50 or more hours a week on their sports. Problem No. 2: plenty of other students hold down part- and full-time campus jobs, yet still manage to study, graduate and do what students do. Wilken kiboshed the NCAA’s baseless assertions, rightly noting that without amateurism income restrictions:

… the student-athletes’ own incentives to perform well academically would remain the same, particularly if they were required to meet these academic requirements as a condition of receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. Such a requirement might even strengthen student-athletes’ incentives to focus on schoolwork …

As for the association’s related argument that empty wallets help elite college athletes fit in with their non-sports peers — for argument’s sake, just pretend this $7 million private chef-equipped Kentucky basketball dorm doesn’t already exist — Wilken wrote it was “not clear” why the same logic doesn’t apply to wealthy students, or why “paying student-athletes would be any more problematic for campus relations than paying other students who provide services to the university, such as members of the student government or school newspaper.”

Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?

* Fan preference: The association contends that fans adore college sports not only because the elite 18-to-22-year-old athletes on the field and court are students wearing university colors — thereby creating a lucrative marriage between brand and talent; between spectacle and rooting interest — but also because they’re unpaid. Change that, and the same fans whose passionate interest creates the billions of revenue that allow coaches and athletic directors to get paid plenty would turn off their televisions, pack up their tailgate grills and find something better to do with their Saturdays. Like yard work.

Needless to say, this argument ignores the Olympics, which dropped amateurism years ago yet remain lucrative and popular. It disregards professional tennis, which beat the Olympics to the pay-players punch. It contradicts the example of every sports league ever, none of which have adopted amateurism in a shrewd bid to attract more fans. But whatever. During the trial, the NCAA offered as supporting evidence … a public opinion survey. A glorified poll. Of the same public that once opposed school desegregation, same-sex marriage and free agency in baseball.

Wilken was not impressed:

… This survey — which contained several methodological flaws and did not ask respondents about the specific restraints challenged in this case — does not provide reliable evidence that consumer interest in FBS football and Division I basketball depends on the NCAA’s current restrictions on student-athlete compensation. Further, Plaintiffs offered evidence demonstrating that such surveys are inevitably a poor tool for accurately predicting consumer behavior … [highlighting] various polls and surveys which documented widespread public opposition to rule changes that ultimately led to increased compensation for professional baseball players and Olympic athletes even as Major League Baseball and the IOC were experiencing periods of massive revenue growth. This evidence counsels strongly against giving any significant weight to [the NCAA’s] survey results …

* Product survival: Big Ten commissioner Delany and other college sports power brokers swear that without amateurism, their conferences and/or schools would drop out of Division-I sports altogether, becoming the first multibillion-dollar industry in recorded human history to pack things in rather than give its employees raises. Wilken found this “not credible,” which is the legal term of art for bulls–t.

* Because amateurism: Believe it or not, the NCAA’s core amateurism legal defense long has been a laughable exercise in semantics and tautological logic: athletes can’t be paid because they’re amateurs, and they’re amateurs because they can’t be paid. Such is our core principle. Wilken didn’t buy it — possibly because she’s a federal judge, and therefore capable of complex thought beyond the level of a particularly clever golden retriever; probably because O’Bannon’s lawyers demonstrated that amateurism isn’t an actual principle in the first place, but rather a nebulous term that consistently means whatever the association says it means. Jon Solomon of CBS Sports explains:

… [Wilken] noted that under NCAA rules, a tennis recruit can preserve amateur status by accepting tens of thousands of dollars in prize money before enrolling in college, yet a track and field recruit would forfeit his eligibility if he or she did the same. Also, Wilken said, a football player is deemed an amateur by accepting a Pell grant that exceeds his total financial aid package above the cost of attendance, yet he would not be an amateur if he instead received the same amount of money for use of his name, image and likeness in live broadcasts.

“Such inconsistencies are not indicative of ‘core principles,'” Wilken wrote.

Surprisingly, she did not add “LOL.”

Who were O’Bannon’s star witnesses?

Easy. Everyone who testified on behalf of the NCAA. Time and again in her decision, Wilken uses the association’s testimony to support her points. Like Emmert stating that it’s not the NCAA’s mission to stop rich schools from taking advantage of their pricey athletic facilities. Or University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides admitting that schools probably wouldn’t leave Division I in a world without amateurism. Or a parade of NCAA witnesses explaining that fans love college sports for pageantry, tradition, rivalries, school spirit and community pride — anything and everything except unpaid players. Or Daniel Rubinfeld, the association’s expert economist, who in his own college textbook specifically refers to the NCAA as a cartel.

Why does this matter? For one, it’s funny. Downright ironic. More importantly, it makes Wilken’s ruling less likely to be overturned in an appeal, because the NCAA will once again find itself arguing against … itself.

(And yes, one more time, I told you so).

If the NCAA’s suffered such a resounding legal defeat, why is Wilken’s injunction so tepid? Why didn’t she just issue an order prohibiting all amateurism restrictions?

Two reasons. First, the case itself was relatively narrow, focused on compensation for college athlete NIL use within the context of television broadcasts and sports video games. Second, O’Bannon’s lawyers asked for an correspondingly limited injunction, even proposing a trust fund/deferred compensation system that would allow the NCAA to again redefine amateurism and maintain some level of economic control over athletes.

Should they have pushed for more? A wholesale demolition? Perhaps. The association’s case was surprisingly weak. That said, the O’Bannon team’s restraint was calculated — likely making it easier for Wilken to rule in their favor by giving her the opportunity to direct college sports toward eventual fairness and antitrust compliance, as opposed to demanding that she dismantle the NCAA’s entire economic system all at once.

Will the NCAA appeal the decision?

Yes. The association has little choice. If Wilken’s decision stands, college sports amateurism has little chance of withstanding future legal challenges — most notably a suit filed by prominent sports and antitrust lawyer Jeffrey Kessler that seeks to eliminate the NCAA’s restrictions on pay for performance entirely.

Will O’Bannon appeal?

The plaintiffs might appeal the specific $5,000 deferred compensation cap, which could have been better determined by additional negotiations between the NCAA and O’Bannon’s lawyers, and seems rooted in former CBS Sports television executive Neal Pilson’s trial testimony that he would be “troubled” by college athletes earning $1 million a year, but not by $5,000.

If the NCAA does pass a rule limiting deferred compensation to $5,000, wouldn’t that just be more price-fixing at a higher rate? And why should athlete NIL money be deferred in the first place?

Good questions. Kessler will be happy to take them up.

Does Wilken’s ruling give the NCAA any chance of winning an appeal? Any ammunition for future antitrust cases? Did she throw them a few bones?

Actually, yes. While Wilken didn’t accept any of the association’s procompetitive justifications for amateurism, she wrote that some might have partial merit — particularly the idea that consumer (read: fan) preferences “might justify certain limited restraints on student-athlete compensation.”

So the next time amateurism ends up in court, we should expect World Survey War III?

Pretty much. Would you be less likely to watch the University of Texas football team if its players were earning $25,000 a year? $50,000? If they were paid via post-graduation trust fund? Via sacks of Spanish doubloons? Somebody somewhere already is crafting the survey questions. Pollsters need billable hours, too.

What was the strangest part of Wilken’s decision?

Easy. In declining to issue an injunction that would allow college athletes to endorse commercial products — a logical corollary to allowing those same athletes to cash in on the use of their NILs via television and video games, because really, what’s the difference — Wilken wrote:

… allowing student-athletes to endorse commercial products would undermine the efforts of both the NCAA and its member schools to protect against the “commercial exploitation” of student-athletes. Although the trial record contains evidence — and Dr. Emmert himself acknowledged — that the NCAA has not always succeeded in protecting student-athletes from commercial exploitation, this failure does not justify expanding opportunities for commercial exploitation of student-athletes in the future …

What exactly constitutes “commercial exploitation?” Why would Manziel appearing on the cover of a video game box be exploitative, while his face scan and real name appearing in the same game’s code be perfectly kosher? Wilken doesn’t say. (Nor does she explain why she put the term in what almost reads as air quotes). Expect enterprising athlete lawyers to take dead aim at this ambiguity.

Speaking of future lawsuits, what else may be coming?

Lead O’Bannon attorney Michael Hausfeld told CBS Sports’ Solomon that his team is considering legal action against networks — like ESPN and the Big Ten Network — for their use of athlete NILs. If schools decide to give men’s basketball and football players larger stipends and deferred payments, civil rights lawyers may invoke Title IX and demand equal composition for female athletes.

Will the O’Bannon decision affect the outcome of the Northwestern University football unionization case, which is currently being reviewed by the national office of the National Labor Relations Board and could end up defining the school’s scholarship football players as campus employees?

Wilken’s ruling isn’t binding labor-law precedent. However, the board certainly will: (a) read it; (b) seriously consider its reasoning. Neither is good for Northwestern’s facts-light, amateurism-heavy case, which makes many of the same arguments the NCAA made against O’Bannon.

If Wilken’s ruling holds up and football and men’s basketball players start getting stipends and trust fund deposits, what will that mean for me as a college sports fan?

Nothing. Nothing will change. The big fish of college sports will still out-recruit and outperform the minnows, and the compensation caps mean that schools like Ball State won’t be able to strategically target their resources and outbid schools such as the University of Kentucky for the occasional five-star high school basketball player. Ohio State University will not replace the University of Michigan on its football schedule with Bard College. Women’s lacrosse teams will solider on as money-losing, feel-good university marketing tools. The sky won’t fall; it won’t even get cloudy. And all of that will make amateurism-defending NCAA Cassandras look increasingly out of touch, downright ridiculous, like the Republicans still railing against the Obamacare freedom-pocalypse that never actually happened.

Will we see college football and basketball video games again, this time with player names and faces?

Good news: It’s possible!

Big picture, what happens next?

Suppose you’re in a legal war of attrition, and the law ultimately isn’t on your side. What do you do? You try to change the law.

According to Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, the NCAA’s board of directors began discussing the possibility of a federal antitrust exemption six years ago — a year before the O’Bannon case was even filed. The Wall Street Journal’s Sharon Terlep recently reported that both the association and major conferences are considering asking Congress for the same.

Odds of success? Hard to handicap. On one hand, lawmakers expressed rhetorical sympathy for amateurism during recent House and Senate hearings on college sports; in an opening statement, senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said that “students play college sports for the love of the game, not love of money. That’s the ideal.” Moreover, both the NCAA and its member schools enjoy a significant home-field advantage over college athletes on Capitol Hill — one group can wield money, lobbyists and influence; the other can offer autographs and photo-ops.

On the other hand, public opinion is slowly turning against amateurism. The NCAA itself is increasingly unpopular, and came under fire at a hearing chaired by Rockefeller for issues including athlete stipends, athletic department involvement in campus sexual assault investigations and concussion safety. Moreover, we’re talking about Congress — an institution increasingly loath to get anything done, particularly anything as controversial and high profile as a college sports Get Out of Jail Free card.

Can’t the NCAA and its opponents work out some sort of Grand Bargain?

That’s the logical endgame. Perhaps college sports could resemble the Olympics, where athletes are free to accept individual gifts and earn endorsement dollars but do not earn salaries for participation. Perhaps they could resemble pro sports, where unionized athletes are paid by schools, but agree to salary caps and some limits on outside income through collective bargaining. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: the status quo cannot stand. Near the end of her ruling, Wilken writes as much:

… to the extent other criticisms have been levied against the NCAA and college policies and practices, those are not raised and cannot be remedied on the antitrust causes of action in this lawsuit. It is likely that the challenged restraints, as well as other perceived inequities in college athletics and higher education generally, could be better addressed as a remedy for the antitrust violations found here. Such reforms and remedies could be undertaken by the NCAA, its member schools and conferences, or Congress …

Speaking with CBS Sports’ Solomon, O’Bannon lawyer Hausfeld sounded a similar note. “The NCAA will hopefully never be the same,” he said. “It’s going to go through a metamorphosis and if it approaches it wisely, it should sit down and discuss with all the interested entities how best to form a new way going forward.”

Yes. It should. Thanks to O’Bannon, amateurism is done. A more equitable future beckons. It may come via blunt force legal trauma. It may come through negotiated consent. Through an injunction that could have been much worse, Wilken has bought the association and its member schools time to pick a path; through her devastating, defense-stripping decision, she is telling them to use it. After a century of imperious, impervious obstinacy, will the NCAA finally listen?
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

jeff locke

How a small-time handicapper concocted a wild MLB game-fixing tale
Kris Barr was investigated by MLB for alleging a game-fixing operation with Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke.

 

by Lance Williams and Brian Tuohy, The Center For Investigative Reporting
www.si.com
This story appears in the Aug. 18, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. It was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit media organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, in collaboration with SI. Subscribe to the magazine here.

In the waning days of the 2012 major league season, Niki Congero received an unusual text message. It came from a man she had never met — a sports handicapper who for a couple of weeks had been texting unsolicited betting tips to her cellphone.

“LOL,” wrote the man, who identified himself as James Hunter from VIP Sports. “I got a baseball game that will be fixed on sunday.”

Congero, a co-owner of a recording studio in Las Vegas, had celebrity connections. She was hosting an upcoming charity event at the Mirage hotel featuring reality-TV stars and figured the handicapper was offering her free tips because he had pegged her as a conduit to high-profile clients.

At first the tips were nothing special, Congero told The Center for Investigative Reporting. Then the handicapper guaranteed her a winner in the Sept. 16 game between the Pirates and the Cubs at Wrigley Field. “My best friend is pitching today for the ­pirates,” Hunter texted. “His name is jeff locke. he will not have a good day.” In a later text he wrote, “Tell your biggest people that pirates game today is fixed. My friend will be throwing this game.”

Pittsburgh jumped out to an early lead behind Locke, a late-season call-up. While the Bucs were ahead, Congero says, the handicapper phoned her, acknowledging that the game wasn’t going the way he had predicted. He implied that he was in touch with the lefthander even as the game was under way.

“I talked to my friend the pitcher, and he said he was going to make it right,” Congero remembers him saying.

Sure enough, in the bottom of the fifth inning, Locke fell apart. In a span of eight pitches he gave up a home run, a single, another home run and another single, shrinking the Pirates’ lead from 6-1 to 6-5. He left the game, and Pittsburgh went on to lose 13-9.

People who bet on the Cubs made money. But Congero wasn’t among them. She found the idea of a fixed baseball game deeply disturbing, and she wanted the handicapper investigated.

All over the country, people who bet on baseball in the fall of 2012 began hearing that Locke and a mysterious handicapper were fixing Pirates games. Like Congero, some complained. Those reports sent shivers through Major League Baseball, prompting a probe of unusual scope and intensity: MLB’s own investigators and organized-crime detectives from the New York City Police Department were deployed to learn the handicapper’s identity and unravel the plot.

Before it was over, their investigation would lead to a tense standoff by the side of an Arizona desert road, where more than a dozen armed officers confronted two frightened young women with a baby in an effort to track down James Hunter. The outcome would hinge on separating fact from fantasy in the interpersonal dynamics between two former youth-baseball teammates from a small New England town — one of whom grew up to become a major league pitcher, the other a sports gambler.

*****

Tiny and scenic Conway, N.H., is 30 miles south of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Presidential Range. It’s the birthplace of Jeff Locke, 26, a baby-faced lefthander who for the last two seasons has been a fixture in the Pirates’ rotation. In 2013 he even made the National League All-Star team.

Conway was also the boyhood home of Kris Barr. He is 27, a tall, brash man with close-cropped hair, a hint of a Southwestern drawl and a record of minor arrests for marijuana possession and fighting. On Facebook, Barr, who sometimes goes by the alias James Hunter, calls himself “the best sports handicapper on the planet.”

Center for Investigative Reporting: A history of MLB scandals

Barr’s family moved to Conway from Boston when he was a baby. He recalls a wonderful childhood there and has especially fond memories of Locke, the son of a onetime local prep-baseball star—and, he says, his best friend. The boys met in grade school. For a time they were inseparable, Barr recalls. “Back in the day, there would be sleepovers every weekend, and we’d always be active, running around like kids do,” he says.

As a kid Barr could throw hard, and he became a “very good player” in Babe Ruth League, recalls former coach Peter Pelletier: “He pitched and played first base or anywhere you want.” Locke was a star as well, a lefthanded slugger who could hit the ball out of the park. The boys played on opposing teams during the regular season but were teammates — and, Pelletier says, friends — on the postseason Mount Washington Valley All-Stars.

In 1998, when Barr was in sixth grade, his mother won the New Hampshire lottery’s $1,000-per-week Cash for Life prize. Winters are fierce in Conway. The family thought of moving to Phoenix but landed 90 miles north in Prescott Valley, Ariz. Barr lost touch with his New Hampshire friends, including Locke.

In the years that followed, Locke became the greatest high school pitcher anybody in Conway had seen. As a sophomore he threw two no-hitters, one a perfect game. As a junior he pitched a five-inning no-hitter in which all the outs were strikeouts. He was twice voted the best player in the state by New Hampshire’s largest newspaper. He finished high school with a record of 34–2 and an ERA of 0.49, and after graduating in 2006 he was drafted by the Braves in the second round and signed for a $650,000 bonus.

On the other side of the country, Barr had stopped playing baseball when he was 16 and had gotten into sports gambling. At first he helped his father place bets online. Then, at 17, Barr took out ads on online gaming sites and began selling tips.

Today Barr lives in Prescott Valley with his girlfriend and baby and helps run a sports memorabilia shop. But the business of betting often requires him to make the 250-mile drive to Las Vegas. He says much of his income comes from selling tips on his website, VIPSportsInvestment.com, on which he handicaps basketball, baseball and especially the NFL. The site says it is “for serious gamblers only.” Tips are delivered via text message or email. Barr says he doesn’t book bets. Clients can place them with the sports books in casinos, with illegal bookmakers or with the plethora of online betting sites run out of the Philippines or Costa Rica.

Handicappers must learn to ride an emotional roller coaster. In 2012, Barr says, he hit “22 NFL games in a row on the spread” and was flying high. But losing streaks are brutal because they cost you clients — and because, as Barr puts it, “some people take gambling real seriously.”

“If I have a bad weekend and I lose a couple of thousand for somebody … I’ve heard of people being shot over something like that,” he says.

To ensure that angry clients cannot find him, Barr says he doesn’t always use his true name or address. On the VIP Sports site he’s identified as James Hunter. When he filled out the paperwork to create the site, Barr gave his name as James Jones. He listed a postal address that no gambling client would associate with him — the house in New Hampshire where he lived as a 12-year-old.

Over the years Barr tracked Locke’s minor league career: three seasons in the Braves’ organization, then a 2009 trade that brought him to the Pirates’ system. By then social media had exploded. Before the 2011 season Barr messaged Locke on Facebook. No reply.

Barr’s brother Don, who also knew Locke from youth baseball, messaged the pitcher as well. At first the Facebook exchanges were friendly, but then Locke’s tone changed. “He said, ‘All you want is to be my friend because I play for the Pirates,’?” Don Barr says. “I said, ‘No — we were childhood friends.’ He never wrote me back.”

Locke’s rude message to his brother angered Kris Barr. It bothered him too, that Locke “never wrote back to me,” he says. He took it as an obvious put-down. The more he thought about it, the more it irked him.

From then on Barr carried a grudge against his former friend. “I said, if he ever makes it to the big leagues, I’m betting against him every time.”

*****

In September 2011, Locke was called up to the Pirates. “I was hoping he would do horrible,” Barr says, “and he did.”

After Locke was knocked around in three games, Barr decided to handicap the pitcher’s Sept. 28 start against Milwaukee. He picked the Brewers to score at least five runs, to have the lead after five innings and to win by two runs or more. Barr got everything right: Locke gave up three home runs and the Brewers won 7-3. But there was little interest in a late-season game between two also-ran clubs.

Locke spent most of the 2012 season in Triple A, but in August he got another big league shot. He pitched in two games out of the Pittsburgh bullpen, then started a Sept. 3 home game against the weak-hitting Astros. In the fifth inning, with two men on base, he hung a curveball to infielder Brett Wallace. Wallace hit it out of the park, and the Pirates lost 5-1.

Sweet! Barr thought. After that he began picking Pittsburgh to lose whenever Locke pitched. No research was involved. “He was just pitching, and I was hoping he gets rocked,” Barr says.

Remembering the lack of interest in the Pirates’ game he handicapped the previous year, Barr decided to up the ante: He advertised his picks by claiming that he and Locke were conspiring to fix the games. “I was telling everybody … ‘I just talked to him and he’s throwing this game,’?” Barr says.

On Sept. 9, Barr picked the Cubs to beat the ­Pirates. In the fourth inning Locke threw an 89-mph fastball, and Josh Vitters hit it over the leftfield fence. Two batters later Locke threw an identical pitch to Anthony Recker. He hit it out to center. The Cubs won 4-2. It was the same story in the Pirates-Cubs game on Sept. 16, the one Barr had touted to Niki Congero: Locke was shelled and Chicago won.

Before a Sept. 21 start against the Astros, Barr predicted Locke would “get hit early and often.” Locke gave up a three-run homer in the first inning and Houston won 7-1. The gambler predicted Locke would take another beating in the Pirates’ Sept. 26 game against the Mets in New York. Locke gave up nine hits in 32/3 innings and the Mets won 6–0. Then, for Locke’s final start of the season, Oct. 1 against Atlanta, Barr switched it up, predicting a win. “I told everybody, He’s going to pitch his heart out ’cause he wants to get his first win against the team that drafted him,” he says. Locke and the Pirates beat the Braves 2-1.

For five games in a row, and usually against the odds, Barr had accurately predicted Locke’s starts. Barr repeated his story of fixing games to many people, including, he says, “a couple of big handicappers” on the East Coast. “They pretty much laughed at me,” Barr says. But after the third loss that he correctly predicted, one of the handicappers threatened to report him to the authorities.

Barr didn’t worry about getting into trouble for claiming to have fixed games. “My brother kept telling me, ‘Don’t be saying that stuff to people,’?” he says. “I said, ‘Nobody will take me seriously, come on.’?”

*****

Game-fixing was at the heart of baseball’s worst scandal, and it almost killed the sport. In 1919 eight players from the White Sox were accused of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series. Baseball vowed to drive gambling from the game and banned the players for life. Since then, publicized gambling scandals in baseball have been rare. The worst involved alltime hit king Pete Rose, who was banned in 1989 for betting on baseball while managing the Reds. But Rose was accused only of betting on games, not fixing them.

Perhaps there aren’t more serious attempts to fix games because it’s such a dangerous and complicated undertaking, says Fay Vincent, commissioner of baseball from 1989 to ’92. Besides, players know they face a lifetime ban if they are caught. In an era of multimillion-dollar salaries, the risk of that draconian punishment hardly seems worth the payoff from gamblers. Still, even though fixing a game is an improbable scenario, “baseball is very concerned about corruption,” Vincent says. If the sport heard allegations of game-fixing that were at all credible, it surely would react aggressively.

It didn’t seem that way to Congero, who couldn’t get anyone to listen.

She was rebuffed by a contact at the Nevada Gaming Commission, then by a friend in federal law enforcement. Finally, a friend who works in the sports book at a casino suggested contacting MLB. Congero found a number and made the call, telling her story to a baseball security official.

Three months passed. Then, in January 2013, two MLB investigators visited Congero in Las Vegas. They wanted to see the text messages from the handicapper and paid her $150 for her phone. She says she never heard from them again — which baffled her considering the accuracy of Barr’s prediction. “The bottom line,” Congero says, “is what he said would happen, happened.”

Actually, by the time they met with Congero, baseball investigators already had fielded several reports about a gambler named Hunter who claimed to be fixing games with Jeff Locke — and they were taking the allegations seriously. An early tip came in an anonymous letter routed to MLB’s department of investigations. The unit was set up in 2008 in response to criticism that the sport had been lax in policing steroid abuse. Under Daniel Mullin, a former deputy chief of the NYPD who headed the department from its inception until this year, the unit had become known for aggressive investigations. Last year Yankees star Alex Rodriguez complained in a lawsuit that Mullin had subjected him to “scorched earth” tactics in MLB’s probe of the player’s alleged steroid use. In May, Mullin was fired in a shake-up of the investigative unit.

How MLB crushed Jeff Locke fixing hoax

On Wednesday’s SI Now, CIR senior investigative reporter Lance Williams discusses how Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke and childhood friend Kris Barr’s relationship looked suspicious in fixing major league games and how the MLB handled the situation.

The possible fixed-game case was assigned to senior investigator Rick Burnham, a former New York City police detective. He says he considered the initial tip “elaborate [and] credible.” Soon Burnham received another tip concerning Locke, from the NYPD’s organized-crime division: A source in Las Vegas had told detectives of a gambler named Gordon Hunter who was “working in cahoots with a player fixing games,” Burnham recalls.

After that, Burnham and the New York City police investigated the case together. For a time they focused on the pitcher. They reviewed hours of game video, looking for signs that Locke was deliberately giving up hits by taking velocity off his pitches or throwing them over the heart of the plate. The investigators spotted nothing conclusive, nor did they uncover any contacts between the pitcher and organized-crime figures or gamblers.

Identifying Hunter was easy: The VIP Sports Investment website and cellphone numbers led them to Kris Barr. Investigators noted that the site was registered in Locke’s New Hampshire hometown — the first evidence that the gambler’s claim of a personal connection with the pitcher might be true. They decided to go to Arizona.

*****

On the frosty morning of Feb. 21, 2013, Kris Barr became convinced he was being followed by “undercover” cars — late-model vehicles with heavily tinted windows, driven by men who looked like plainclothes police. Wherever he drove in Prescott Valley one of the cars would turn up in his rearview mirror. His concern deepened when he drove to work and found another car parked outside the office. Agitated, he drove away. When he got to a bowling alley on Second Street, he abruptly pulled into the lot, abandoned his car and walked home.

By the time he got there, Barr had decided the police were after him. He called the county drug task force, which he had encountered during his conviction for a misdemeanor marijuana charge three years earlier. Barr says the officer assured him that nobody was following him. When Barr persisted, the officer told him to go to the hospital and “get psychiatric help.”

By that evening Barr was frantic. He asked for help retrieving his car: While Barr waited in a borrowed car, several members of his family piled into two vehicles and drove to the bowling alley. His sister, Savannah, then got behind the wheel of Kris’s car, with his girlfriend, Kendra Hagerty, and their seven-month-old baby as passengers. Barr’s mother followed in her car. His brother Don and a 12-year-old niece trailed in his own car.

They drove a mile on a strip of two-lane asphalt through a semirural area west of town. Then, according to Barr’s family, all hell broke loose. As many as eight unmarked cars with lights flashing roared down the darkened road, forcing the convoy to pull over. Plainclothes officers jumped out.

According to Savannah Barr, an officer with a drawn gun leaned into the car and declared, “Whoever is driving this car is going to jail!” Frightened and in tears, she got out of the car.

The officer was looking for Kris Barr: Kris had been in “a hit-and-run in New Mexico,” he said, and the other driver was in critical condition. Where was Kris?

Don Barr had turned on his cellphone to record the traffic stop. He too was told to get out of his car. He says he could hear officers yelling at his sister, threatening to put her in jail and take her kids away if she didn’t disclose Kris Barr’s whereabouts. Don called out to her, saying she didn’t have to say anything. For that, he says, he was handcuffed.

“You’re causing a ruckus,” an officer says in the recording.

Don Barr asks who the officers are. “You guys are supposed to tell me why I was pulled over,” he says.

“We’re conducting an investigation,” one officer responds. “ … And I am not giving you any information about what we’re investigating. Do I look like a traffic cop to you?

“I’m a very secretive person,” the officer continues. “When I feel like you have a need to know, I’ll tell you.”

By the Barr family’s estimates, 15 officers surrounded them that night. To this day, they have no idea who the officers were.

The investigators who worked the fixed-game case were not forthcoming. MLB punted questions to the NYPD. Det. Cheryl Crispin, a department spokeswoman, acknowledged detectives had investigated the case. But she declined to identify the Arizona agency involved in the traffic stop.

The Yavapai County sheriff, the Prescott Valley police and the U.S. Marshals Service said they weren’t involved. Finally, The Center for Investigative Reporting queried the office of Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, a flamboyant lawman famous for publicity stunts that burnish his tough-on-crime image. Arpaio’s office is in Phoenix, a county away from the Barr family incident. But by Arizona law a sheriff can enter another agency’s jurisdiction to investigate a crime.

Spokesman Lieut. Brandon Jones confirmed that the department’s fugitive unit had made the traffic stop to assist the New York detectives. He said there was no incident report — “no records, no nothing,” as he put it — and said the detective in charge of the traffic stop declined to be interviewed. “MLB asked them not to talk,” Jones said.

On the side of the road that night, Savannah Barr gave in. She called her brother and pleaded with him to come talk to the officers. Kris, she said, they say you killed somebody with your car and I’m about to be put in jail for it.

Filled with dread, Kris Barr drove to the desolate stretch of road where his family had been stopped. He approached the officers and told them he didn’t know anything about an accident. The officers, Barr says, acknowledged that they had been following him all day. Now they were waiting for a special agent coming from the airport.

Half an hour later the man Barr would come to call “MLB Rick” — Burnham — arrived in an SUV with two New York City detectives. Somebody told Barr to get in the car. As soon as the door closed, the investigators asked about Jeff Locke. “I started laughing,” Barr says. “But it wasn’t anything funny for the next hour.”

We have proof you fixed baseball games, Barr remembers the investigators telling him before adding that they were going to convict him on a “ton of charges” and send him to prison for years. When Barr denied fixing games, he says Burnham “went crazy on me … cussing at me, telling me I needed to cooperate — he called me a liar so many times in that car.” Burnham is a muscular, grim-faced man, a former U.S. Marine sergeant. His booming voice filled the SUV.

The investigators advised Barr that “the best thing for me was just to admit it,” he says. “They told me they would give me 10 minutes with ­Kendra and the baby to say goodbye before they took me away.” Rattled and scared, Barr tried to explain his boyhood friendship with Locke, saying the story of fixing games was just “something stupid” that had begun with a slight on Facebook. He hadn’t talked to Locke since they were kids. Burnham, Barr says, yelled, “I know you’ve talked to Jeff Locke!”

The grilling went on until the investigators seemed to run out of questions. They sent Barr home, ordering him to wait for them the next morning in the parking lot of a Family Dollar store on state Route 69. If he didn’t show up, Barr says, they made it clear they would track him down and put him in jail.

The next morning Barr met the investigators and climbed back into the SUV. This session was less intense. Barr says he was told to write a statement explaining the hoax. The investigators also wanted a list of his boyhood friends from New Hampshire and all the contacts in his cellphone. As the interview wrapped up, Barr says, the investigators made it clear they still thought he was lying. “There’s no way you predicted the outcomes of those games,” he recalls Burnham saying.

Over the next six weeks Barr received many phone calls and four visits from the investigators, usually unannounced. Burnham combed through Barr’s Twitter account and cellphones. Barr’s girlfriend, sister and brother were interviewed. Don Barr said the investigator went through his Facebook account, focusing on the messages he had sent to Locke.

Weeks passed without contact. Then, in April 2013, Burnham called Barr. To close the case, he said the gambler would have to take a lie-detector test.

By then, Barr was no longer afraid. He told Burnham to “f— off,” he says, and hung up. Then he reconsidered and called back. He would take the polygraph exam as long as MLB agreed to pay him $10,000 if the test showed he was telling the truth. Burnham agreed to think it over, Barr says. Later “he called me back and said no, and that was it.”

In the end, both the New York City Police Department and baseball officials had examined the case from every angle. The police department concluded that no crime had been committed, spokeswoman Crispin said, and “the case was referred to MLB for their internal investigation.”

Burnham never found evidence of recent contact between the pitcher and the gambler, and nothing to suggest that anyone served as a go-between to relay inside information about Locke to Barr. Nor was there unusual betting activity, as would be expected if games were being fixed. “We went to Vegas and spoke to people out there,” Burnham says. “We had many informants who looked into it from the back end, and none of it checked out.”

He became convinced that Barr’s story of social media disrespect and revenge was true. Burnham closed the case, he says, with “no doubt in my mind.”

*****

Jeff Locke first learned of the investigation after it was over, early in the 2013 season. Baseball investigators asked to meet with him, says Bob Lenaghan, a lawyer for the baseball players’ union. Lenaghan went along. “They told him, ‘You should know that this person out there, who you knew when you were a kid and played [youth] baseball, had made allegations against you,’?” he says.

The investigators assured Locke that they had concluded the allegations were bogus. They told him that Barr had concocted the story out of jealousy, Lenaghan recalls, because “he always thought it should have been him — he was a better baseball player back then and life ain’t fair.”

How did Locke react? “Put yourself in his shoes,” Lenaghan says. “It is surprising. But he first heard about it at the same time he was cleared, so I don’t think it was as much a distraction as it otherwise might have been.”

Locke declined to discuss the investigation with reporters. He is “glad that it is behind him,” his agent, Seth Levinson, wrote in an email. When approached before a recent Pirates-Giants game in San Francisco, the pitcher rebuffed questions. “I don’t know anything about it — sorry, man,” he said, and retreated to the training room.

The game-fixing probe didn’t seem to affect Locke. Signed to a $497,500 contract, he started strong in 2013. In the first half he went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA and was named to that All-Star team. But in the second half of the season he faltered, going 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA. In August 2013, Locke was briefly sent to Triple A.

As Locke struggled, Barr couldn’t resist needling him. “On his Twitter, I wrote, ‘Have fun watching the postseason from home,’?” Barr says. “I was just being a jerk.”

Soon after, his phone rang. It was Burnham with a clear and direct message: “Quit trying to talk to Jeff Locke.”

This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit media organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area, in collaboration with Sports Illustrated. Learn more about CIR at cironline.org. Contact the reporter at lwilliams@cironline.org.

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