Between 1978 and 1979, members of the Boston College (BC) basketball team were bribed into fixing nine matches, earning the conspirators six-figure sums in a complex betting scandal.
One of the key orchestrators of that scandal was the notorious mobster, Henry Hill, whose life story was turned into the gangster epic, Goodfellas. Hill would later become an FBI informant, after being arrested on drug-trafficking charges, and it was his testimony that brought the Boston College scandal to light.
ESPN’s award-winning documentary series, 30 for 30, has produced a groundbreaking exploration of the infamous match-fixing scam that includes interviews with all the major players.
You can see Playing for the Mob on BT Sport 1 on Wednesday, June 14 at 10pm. Here, we delve into the extraordinary story behind this must-see documentary….
Players weren’t asked to lose, just to win by a smaller margin
The crux of the operation was to narrow the margin of victory, not ‘throw the game’, theoretically making the plan more difficult for authorities to track. The mob focused on matches in which Boston College were expected to produce a big margin of victory, and instructed players to fall short of the point spread. However, as the match-fixing developed, they began to bet on the opposition team, complicating the role of those involved.
In Playing for the Mob, Boston captain Jim Sweeney finally gives his side of the story
When director Joe Lavine approached Sweeney, who was acquitted of all charges, the former BC captain jumped at the opportunity to give his account after decades of rumours had tainted his reputation. And it’s some story. Sweeney recalls being told his genitals would be cut off and hung around his neck if he spoke to the authorities.
However, the mob didn’t trust him, and his wife, Maura, was subsequently kidnapped, but managed to escape by jumping out of the moving vehicle. The couple immediately informed the police – who urged them to steer clear of the mob and avoid pressing charges.
The narrator is Ray Liotta, who played Henry Hill in Goodfellas
Joe Lavine first became interested in making Playing for the Mob after watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas in 1990 and realising the lead character was the same man who’d organised the Boston College betting scandal.
The story was only uncovered after Hill became an FBI informant
The largest cash robbery in history – the theft of $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewellery from Lufthansa Airlines at John F Kennedy International Airport in 1978 – ultimately led to Hill opening up about the points-shaving operation. The heist, which is one of the key storylines in Goodfellas, caused paranoia and anxiety to overwhelm the Lucchese crime family and, after being arrested on drug-trafficking charges, Hill became convinced his life was under threat.
After investigators played Hill surveillance tapes in which heist mastermind Jimmy Burke told friends Hill need to be “whacked”, Hill became an FBI informant and testified against many of his former associates. It was only during this process that the Boston College scandal came to light.
Playing for the Mob includes a revealing interview with Hill, who died in 2012
Arguably the highlight of the documentary is an interview with the former mobster, conducted shortly before he died of a heart attack in 2012. Our favourite line: “I didn’t threaten him or nothin’. I just said, ‘It’s hard to play basketball with a broken arm.’”
Only four of the nine games targeted were successfully fixed
Huge sums of money were supposedly won, but the scheme was unsuccessful in more than half of the targeted matches. According to Hill, when Burke lost $50,000 on a single match that went against BC, he put his foot through the TV set.
Sweeney is convinced the Boston College scandal isn’t unique in the sport
One of the most shocking revelations in Playing for the Mob is Sweeney’s assertion that college sport in America is likely riddled with similar stories that were never uncovered by the authorities. “I’m sure it’s happened since,’’ he says. “And I’m sure it will happen again.’’
ESPN 30 for 30: Playing for the Mob is being shown on BT Sport 1 at 10pm on Wednesday, June 15.