Halloween 2010 kicked off a rough week for Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons.
On November 5, Olbermann, host of MSNBC's Countdown, was suspended without pay after the network learned he'd violated its ban on political contributions. Simmons, espn.com's "Sports Guy," had his own problems, posting his first losing week in the prestigious Hilton Super Contest, a Las Vegas–based gambling competition spanning the NFL season.
Olbermann's suspension lasted only two days, but it opened a wound that didn't heal, and he left the network last month. Simmons, meanwhile, keeps chugging along as one of the country's most popular sports columnists. He's not bad at picking the games, either: the Sports Guy bounced back with a 3-1-1 Week 9 in the Hilton contest, and ultimately tied for 15th out of 345 entries, more than tripling his $1500 entry fee.
Financial reporters aren't allowed to buy stock in companies they cover. Political reporters often go so far as to not vote in order to keep their claims of objectivity legitimate. But many sports reporters - gatekeepers of all the juicy tidbits that could sway public opinion on a game, either in Vegas or with a local bookmaker - think nothing of placing a wager themselves.
An estimated $380 billion is bet illegally in America each year, and more than $1 billion will be laid down on the Super Bowl this Sunday. Some of that action will come from sports reporters. According to a study by researchers at the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State, more than 40 percent of sports reporters surveyed said they had bet on sports, and yet only a quarter of American newsrooms have policies on sports gambling. Even the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) - which warns against accepting a free round of golf if doing so would create a conflict of interest - doesn't address gambling in its ethics guidelines.
When those who cover politics and news can and do lose their jobs over conflicts of interest, why do some of the biggest sports-reporting brands - including ESPN, the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader" - allow their writers to gamble on sports?
Boston Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan has been in journalism for 40 years. In the early years of his career, he says, it wasn't unusual to come across reporters who mixed work with prognostication.
"When I first started, there was a lot of talk of people gambling on sports they covered," says Sullivan. "I think it has changed. None of our reporters now gamble as far as I know."
The Globe is among the minority of newspapers that has a policy on gambling. Sullivan says it was adopted from the New York Times - the Globe's parent company - about two and a half years ago, and essentially prohibits sports staffers from betting on games they cover.
"I think you should not be gambling on games you're covering," he says. "It influences how you look at the game. Suddenly you're rooting if you're betting, and you shouldn't be rooting."
Sullivan, who chairs APSE's Future and Internet Committee, says the organization looks at regulating gambling as a "state's rights" issue, leaving it up to member papers.
The Globe, like the Boston Herald, runs a gambling column on Fridays during football season. Sullivan says to ignore the relationship between the game and those who bet on it would be "burying our head in the sand."