At first, the 2016 NBA Finals didn’t look like they were going to be much of a contest. The Cleveland Cavaliers trailed the Golden State Warriors 3-1 and a mercy kill appeared imminent. And then the Cavs caught a break.
Draymond Green, Golden State’s starting forward, was suspended in Game 4 for a tussle with LeBron James — a head-scratching decision to some who felt the punishment was unwarranted.
Cleveland went on to win the next game by 15 points. In Game 6, the Cavs also enjoyed some luck after Golden State sharpshooter Steph Curry fouled out — something that had not happened for three years.
His wife quickly tweeted, “sorry this is absolutely rigged for money . . . Or ratings [I’m] not sure which.”
The series went to a seventh game, and Cleveland ultimately squeaked by with a four-point victory, winning its first-ever title.
To Brian Tuohy, author of the new book “The Fix Is Still In: More Corruption and Conspiracies the Pro Sports Leagues Don’t Want You to Know About” (Feral House), out Tuesday, something fishy was definitely going on. The ending felt a little too good to be true.
“I thought that series was manipulated,” he tells The Post. “A lot of strange things happened, and it all culminated in LeBron James bringing a title home for Cleveland.”
As endings for the season went, it was the most storybook imaginable for the NBA. James, one the most famous athletes on the planet, finally achieved his dream of bringing a championship to his hometown of Cleveland and in the process delivered hope to a long-downtrodden city. Cleveland was even dubbed “Believeland.”
Could the fix have possibly been in?
We’ll probably never know, but Tuohy’s book chronicles a myriad of ways that outcomes can be manipulated, either by the players, the officials or the leagues themselves. An author on a series of books involving sports conspiracies, Tuohy’s work is based on publicly available media reports, his own interviews with athletes and sports figures, and FBI files on sports bribery going back decades that he received through a Freedom of Information request.
One of the biggest offenders, he claims, are the leagues themselves. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and others have the power to nudge the outcome of games — if they choose to do so.
“The biggest takeaway that I tried to impart is that it’s not illegal for a sports league to fix its own games,” Tuohy says. “There’s no law that prevents it from happening [unless bribery is involved]. They can manipulate their games to add drama and excitement to make certain storylines last longer than they should and to promote certain athletes.
“I don’t think anything is stopping them,” he continues. “The only thing that prevents them from doing it is their idea of integrity. But when you look at sports and see the criminals who are allowed to keep playing and the use of performance-enhancing drugs, their integrity can definitely be questioned.”
Tuohy admits that finding conclusive proof is difficult — at least in the US.
Global scandals, on the other hand, are as routine as midfielders faking injury. Earlier this year, Spanish officials busted a ring that conspired to fix tennis matches, reportedly involving 30 pro players. Soccer, too, is rife with scandal both in the World Cup and in the overseas professional leagues.
But many Americans believe corruption isn’t happening here. Tuohy says we’re just not looking hard enough.
Evidence that contests have been tampered with are out there, involving almost every major sport. And there are numerous ways that a thumb could be put on the scale.
The easiest way, Tuohy says, is via the referees. Most simply, they can be paid off, as organized crime has tried to do in the past, or influenced in direct ways. During a 1965 Florida State vs. Baylor football game, for example, the ref was so in the tank for FSU that he even attempted to get in the way of Baylor defenders trying to make a tackle on a 59-yard pass play, according to FBI files.
The referees can be manipulated in more subtle ways, as well.
One potential method is from the league itself. Former NBA official Tim Donaghy, who in 2007 pleaded guilty to betting on games he called and influencing the outcomes, has claimed that the league lets its officials know how games should be called — blow the whistle more often on these plays, for example, or swallow the whistle when it comes to this star player.
“That’s merely an employer telling employees how to do their job,” Tuohy says.
Donaghy told Sports Illustrated in 2016 that he thought that year’s NBA Finals were prolonged on the league’s orders, citing Green’s suspension as unusual. (Though Donaghy has obvious credibility problems.)
Even if you believe that some referees aren’t calling games purely as they see them, so what? The players still decide the game and the refs can only do so much, even if they are attempting to facilitate a certain outcome.
“A lot of people say one play doesn’t make a difference, but it does,” Tuohy says.
He cites the blown pass interference call in January’s Los Angeles Rams-New Orleans Saints playoff game that helped send LA to the Super Bowl.
“You see these things week in and week out, and as fans how do you not say, ‘Wait a sec. Something’s not right here,’ ” the author says.
And of course, the players themselves could be in on a fix.
One of the most tried and true methods is point shaving, whereby a player attempts to keep his or her team from covering a point spread in order to reward gamblers. The practice was a big issue decades ago with high-profile scandals at the University of Kentucky and other college programs, but Tuohy writes that “point-shaving is not a relic of the past” and “is routinely taking place within collegiate sports today.”
How does the NCAA know? Because their own athletes have told them so.
Since 2004 and every four years thereafter, the organization has anonymously surveyed some 20,000 student-athletes about gambling, and on the question of whether he or she has been approached about point shaving, anywhere from 1.2 percent to 2.4 percent of respondents admitted they had.
And those are just the ones who admitted it.
A 2006 study by economist Justin Wolfers analyzed the results of more than 40,000 Division I games between 1989 and 2005 and found that a favored team covered the spread 50.01 percent of the time. However, when a team was favored by 12 or more points, the favorite covered only 48.37 percent of the time, “and just missed covering (say, winning by 11 when they were favored by 12) far more often than shorter favorites,” wrote Mark Bechtel in Sports Illustrated. “To Wolfers, the deviations, which occurred in 6 percent of games with large spreads . . . are too statistically significant to be random.”
Wolfers suspected point shaving.
Thanks to movies like “Raging Bull” and “Pulp Fiction,” boxing is a sport that at least appears most prone to corruption. And these days, you can throw mixed martial arts into the mix, with bout-fixing whispers having dogged stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, among others.
Tuohy says that in boxing, at least, there’s a more nefarious way of determining the outcome than just ordering a fighter to take a dive. And it works in the way some managers schedule bouts.
“A manager who sees promise in a young fighter will often set up rigged bouts with like-minded managers in order to get his boxer work without fearing any unnecessary damage,” Tuohy writes. “How else do you think so many challengers for a title belt come into a fight with a record of 22 fights, 22 wins, 18 of which came by way of knockout?”
Charles Farrell, who has managed Leon Spinks among others, has said that managers communicate with one another in coded language, in order to find an opponent who will give their fighter exactly the kind of bout they’re looking for.
And if it’s not the players or referees that are suspect, it’s the equipment itself.
Take Major League Baseball, which in recent years, has been enjoying a sharp rise in the number of home runs hit. In 2017, a record 6,105 dingers were smacked league-wide.
The suspected culprit? “Juiced” baseballs — ones that were manufactured in a slightly different way from the balls previously used in MLB in order to make them fly farther.
The more home runs, the better for the league, as viewers tuned in and broken records drew headlines.
In 2017, Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel told The New York Times he believed the balls were indeed juiced because, “Major League Baseball wants to put on a show.”
And don’t even get Tuohy started on horse racing. Among the FBI files he examined, the “majority” involved the ponies — everything from bribing jockeys to doping the animals.
“I talked to a former FBI agent who worked in the New York City area, and sometimes these races were so fixed no one wanted to win,” Tuohy says. “They were all pulling their horses back.”
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If all this sounds bleak, take heart. In Wolfers’ point-shaving analysis, he also found that the practice virtually disappeared in the postseason. In other words, when it really counted, all the athletes cared about was doing their best. If there’s one single thing sports fans should learn from his book, it’s to be more observant, Tuohy says. “I just want fans to ask more questions about what they’re consuming and not be so drug-addicted to it,” he says.