Review: Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL

Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger’s Pros and Cons is a 1999 book about the massive instances of NFL players who had criminal records. These players were not just chosen in the draft in spite of their criminal backgrounds, but were often shielded by their teams to great extents. So far, that does not sound surprising, being just a few years removed from the OJ Simpson trial. But they deliberately avoid talking about the obvious “superstar power” and instead focus near-entirely on how the teams twist to protect criminal players who are not stars by any definition of the term.

It’s well-researched and has many harrowing examples. But it comes across as flawed for two big reasons. The first is that it ultimately feels sensationalist for the sake of sensationalism. This is of course a massive inherent issue for true crime books like it. But it seems to go further in that it assumes its readers are holding to a hopelessly outdated “Gee whiz, look at that Mickey Mantle, so nice and clean” mindset that I can assure you was not present even in children at the time of the book’s release (I know this because I was one at the time. I can tell you that I knew more about Dennis Rodman’s off-court antics than about what made him good on it).

Which leads to the second not-its-fault problem. This is like a book on unrestrained warfare-released in 1913. The internet was a paradigm shift in how these inevitable incidents were processed and viewed, and arriving just before it really broke out massively makes it horrendously dated.

I can’t really recommend this book. It’s a dated true crime book that’s basically redundant by this point.

Frankfurt Football

I have a crazy alternate history idea to spread American Football. So,the NFL’s desire to expand outside of its comfort zone has been mixed. But still, this alternate history enables the powers of the other kind of football to cash in. Many if not most European clubs best known for their soccer teams are in fact multi-sports, all under one umbrella. So for the sake of local laws and convenience, they’re technically the American Football branch of the club. Even if everyone but the kicker is an imported player from the states.

Frankfurt, being in the American military sector in the Cold War, has some of the most exposure to American popular culture. Therefore, its dominant team, Eintracht Frankfurt, gets an American football franchise. Of course, one quirk of the German 50+1 structure that ensures (nominal) control over a club by its members means that it and other German entries to the NFL would theoretically have a similar organization as the Green Bay Packers.

Silly? But that’s what AH is for. And besides, their team emblem looks like it’d fit perfectly on an American football helmet.

The Asian Sportsbook

Finally got the chance to hear about the peculiarities of Asian sportsbooks in an old podcast by betting hand Matthew Trenhaile. Of course it comes a year after I wrote an Asian megabook as if it was a western-facing post-up (you deposit money in the book instead of operating on credit) one in The Sure Bet King. Anyway, the entire segment is great and I recommend you listen to it.

Asian sportsbooks have had (note the past tense) a reputation for being “sharp”, ie taking bets unquestioned with huge limits. But as the podcast notes, it’s wrong to compare them to the western-facing “sharp books” (Circa Sports / Pinnacle /BetCRIS). The short version for their “balancing act” is simple:

  • A complex “agent system” that evolved from technological constraints and also legal ones.
  • More importantly,a gargantuan pool of recreational money (at least in soccer) and the ability to, for lack of a better word, “dilute” the sharp money across it.

The podcast, recorded in 2018, mentioned this system declining already. Limits were being noticeably reduced, especially for lower-tier leagues. The wider adoption of the internet makes the tangled agent pyramid less and less necessary. Since then, everything I’ve seen has indicated this trend becoming more pronounced.

It’s a fascinating look at an extremely important but murky even by sports betting standards component.

Prop Betting

One of the most revolutionary changes in sports betting in recent years has been the rise of player props (ie, will this player score? How much of Stat X will this player accomplish in the game? Will the final score be odd or even?) Veteran gambling reporter David Purdum talks about this paradigm shift in an ESPN column. Props began in popular culture as those goofy things they did in the Super Bowl, but have now risen up massively, displacing the old spreads, totals, and moneylines.

Although Purdum’s column talks about the NFL, props are something that can (and have) been done in any sport with a relevant stat. Looking at the upcoming English Premier League matches, I’m seeing between 400 and 550 props on each game. (There are already over 200 props at some books for NFL Week 1 games a month off from the writing of this post). I saw an array of props for an upcoming cricket match. During the dark sports days of Spring 2020, I was both bemused and a little impressed by seeing giant prop menus for Belarusian soccer matches.

Of course props have a downside too from a business perspective, and that’s that they amplify the sharp-soft clash greatly. Traditionally, the few sharp books have had fewer and tamer prop markets than the much larger number of soft ones. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the player/team prop markets can be “sharpened” the way the main lines have been.

But as of now, it’s a very reasonable question to ask “how can you ensure a house edge on hundreds and hundreds of different markets [things to bet on]?” And the answer is often “you really can’t.” The approaches are frequently blunt: Low limits, high house shares compared to lines, and restricting/limiting people who consistently win.

Still, for better or worse, giant prop bet menus are here to stay and dominate.

From Single To Multi-Talented Athletes

Most athletes are single-focused. When they try to do more advanced sports than what they’re used to, it often doesn’t work. See Herb “I can run fast” Washington. Likewise, when multi-talents go against specialists, unless the physical difference is vast, they can’t compete. But there’s a few who’ve gone the distance. Take Bob Hayes, gold medal sprinter, Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer. Or Mariusz Pudzianowski , a Polish weightlifter and strongman-who became a champion mixed martial artist.

This is of course not true for everyone. Most sprinters couldn’t be wide receivers. Most weightlifters couldn’t handle actual fighting. But there are always outliers like those two. There’s also an interesting number of legendary hockey/soccer crossover players like Lev Yashin (hockey, famous in soccer) and Vsevolod Bobrov (soccer, famous in hockey)

What would be interesting would be multi-sport stars who aren’t physical outliers with an obvious advantage (ie Bo Jackson) or people who can take advantage of playing in a similar sport (some Caribbean baseball players who also played cricket growing up).

Review: The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

Time to review another thriller with a main character that has a perfect thriller name: Colt Ryder. When I saw that the premise of The Thousand Dollar Touchdown involved sports and gambling, I knew I had to read it. Ryder, the wandering “thousand dollar man”, helps people for that amount. He also kills people in the process. This time his client is the wife of an NFL quarterback. Her brother-in law has died suspiciously, and she thinks he’s been throwing games.

This is very much a 51% book. None of the elements are really that bad, and it’s short and breezy. But it falls short of being genuinely good. A bit of this is the premise: Someone who’s studied the actual way that the sports leagues have been two-faced behind sports betting, the actual composition of their management, and the actual composition of the gambling underworld will notice the oversimplifications and inaccuracies. But since cheap thrillers do not have to be accurate per se, I can wave that off.

A bigger problem is the style. It’s written in this first-person classic hardboiled type that I don’t care the most for, and that style is not the best suited for an action-packed climax where the main character performs ridiculous feats. There’s also a bit of tonal clash. The main character’s approach involves Jack Bauer-ing his way to information by beating people up until they talk, but he’s kept alive in a Dr. Evil Deathtrap after being captured because of plot.

This is a 51% book, but it’s a more interesting to review “mean 51%” than a flat “median 51%”.

Another Theory For Boxing’s Decline

There have been many good explanations for the decline of boxing’s popularity in American popular culture. (I say in popular culture, as many big fights continue to draw big crowds and make big bucks). The usual and well-founded ones range along the lines of…

  • General sleaziness (which is not a new thing-an amusing example of this is how even by the 1960s, the sport’s reputation had shrunk to the point where new strips in the Joe Palooka comic didn’t actually show him boxing).
  • The division of the sport into many rival fiefdoms, from the “alphabet soup” sanctioning organizations to promotions and confusing weight divisions.
  • The sport being confined to niche premium television (it’s a chicken-egg question whether this was a mistake that walled off its customer base or a reasonable solution because its base and relationship with network television was declining anyway).
  • Competition from other sports, not just in terms of viewers but also in terms of what athletically talented people want to pursue. Just look at the career paths of Ken Norton Senior and Junior. This has also affected the other major American classic sport, baseball. Tom Brady was a talented baseball player in high school who was drafted by the Expos and Patrick Mahomes’ father was an MLB pitcher.
  • Because of the first three points and a fairly unique obsession with perfect records, an abundance of noncompetitive squashes, with actual quality fights hard to set up.

The last point leads into a new theory I saw floating around the internet-which is that the mass of lopsided fights leads to lopsided odds that are neither competitive nor fun. A big favorite gets the winner very little money (especially once one considers sportsbook limits) and big losses if their opponent does pull a Buster Douglas. A big underdog is highly unlikely to win.

This is an especially tough problem in a sport that has been closely tied to gambling for its entire existence. Boxing isn’t as fused to betting as, say, horse racing is (In my personal, albeit limited experience, the only people who care about non-Triple Crown races are gamblers), but I’d say it’s definitely more so than the other major sports. While I don’t think poor odds are the only reason it’s fallen out of favor, it certainly doesn’t help.

Different Sports What-Ifs

Of all the theorized “what if this successful and physically talented athlete played a different sport” questions, the most interesting, in my eyes, is American football. This is because that sport involves a wide array of roles that each require a different physical quality and skill set.

The least satisfying is baseball, because the skill sets there are not immediately obvious. Yet you can argue that baseball is interesting because it has the most definite stats. Jim Thorpe and Bo Jackson were incredibly strong physically, but neither was more than decent as a baseball player. Looking at Jackson’s batting stats and just his batting stats, you’d see power but a ton of strikeouts and few walks-the sort of numbers you’d associate more with a Dave Kingman-style lummox over a wall-jumping acrobat.

Then there’s Brian Jordan, who was also a football-turned baseball player and was also a low-walk slugger, but didn’t strike out as often as Jackson did. However, there was an aspiring football running back who ended up playing baseball instead. And he was one of the best walk-drawers (and baserunnners, and players in general) of all time. I speak of Rickey Henderson. So I want to say that, for any obviously talented player in another sport, the likeliest path for them in baseball is the “low-walk slugger” approach, but Henderson’s path means you never know.