Nick "The Crow" Caramandi
The flamboyant, 56-year-old South Philadelphia wise guy pleaded guilty to a gambling charge back in April that could carry a jail term of up to two years.
He is to be sentenced in federal court in Manhattan in September. By that point, it probably will be legal to place a bet on a sporting event—which is what Merlino pled guilty to—at any casino or racetrack in New Jersey. And it won’t be much longer before the same will be said for Pennsylvania and several other states.
The irony is not lost on Skinny Joey who has pointed out to friends that he will be going to jail for something that is no longer a crime.
This, of course, is the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned longstanding federal law prohibiting states from legalizing sports betting. Bookmaking, long the exclusive legal province of Nevada, is about to become as common place as state lotteries.
Point spreads, over-and-under, reverses and parlays will be part of the new, everyday gambling parlance just as boxed and straight, once phrases common only to those who played illegal numbers, are now routinely uttered by anyone playing the lottery.
New Jersey, which spearheaded the legal push on sports betting, is ready to cash in. How big a boon this will be to the state’s casino and racetrack industries is hard to determine. But there is clearly money to be made.
Consider this. It is estimated that the Nevada sports books took about $150 million in action on this year’s Super Bowl. Those were legal bets. But the total amount wagered, according to those same estimates, was about $5 billion worldwide. Most of that money was bet either online or with illegal (and often mob linked) bookmakers.
New Jersey hopes to grab a piece of that pie as well as a piece of the billions more that are wagered over the football, basketball, baseball and hockey seasons.
Will legalized sports betting have a financial impact on the mob?
But the bet here is that legalized bookmaking is not the death knell of organized crime’s gambling economy. Some even believe adding sports betting to casinos and racetracks will eventually create new customers for mob bookmakers.
Big winners in casinos have to report their earnings—and pay taxes—to the IRS. That doesn’t happen if you’re betting with a wise guy. More important, mob bookmakers allow you to bet on credit. It may be weeks during a football or baseball season before you have to settle up.
A simple phone call is all it takes to place a bet. During the football season, a gambler who has taken a beating on Saturday betting college games, can call his bookie and try to recoup by betting the pro games on Sunday. If he takes another hit with the one o’clock games, he can double-down again by calling in bets for the four o’clock games. Then the eight o’clock game and then the Monday night contest.
Football in America!
At no time during that process will he have had to reach into his pocket for cash or use his credit card to support his action. Try that in a casino or on an Internet gambling site.
There is also the mob’s economic corollary to bookmaking—loan sharking.
“There’s nothing better than shark money,” former mobster Nick Caramandi told me when I was interviewing him for a book about his life.
The Crow, as Caramandi was known, went on to explain the dynamics.
“Gamblers, serious gamblers, are degenerates,” he said. “They have to bet. Now a guy gets in debt to us. Let’s say he owes $10,000. He’s gotta pay that money or we don’t let him bet no more.”
So Caramandi would send the gambler to a loan shark—who was affiliated with the mob. The gambler would be loaned $10,000 which he used to pay off his gambling debt to The Crow. He would then be able to continue gambling.
The loan, Caramandi explained, was for 10 weeks at three points. The math works this way: Three points is three percent per week. That’s $300. At the end of 10 weeks, the gambler will have paid $3,000 in interest and still owe the $10,000 from the initial loan.
Now if he’s had a hot winning streak, maybe he can pay off the debt. In most cases, that doesn’t happen. So Caramandi and company would extend the loan for another 10 weeks, again at three points.
At the end of a year—and for degenerate gamblers this was a real possibility—the gambler will have plaid $15,600 in interest and still owe the initial $10,000. And the mob will have put that $15,600 “on the street at three points.”
“Nothing better than shark money,” Caramandi said again with a smile.
That’s the economy of sports betting in the underworld. To the extent that legalized bookmaking takes gamblers away from the mob, loan sharking will decline. But for a casual gambler who suddenly finds himself hooked on sports betting, legalized books may just be the first step toward bigger play on credit with the wise guys.
The NFL, the NBA, the NCAA and most other leagues were adamant in their opposition to legal sports betting. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for attorneys who argued against the proposition. The integrity of the games and the sanctity of the sport were at stake, said the leagues.
Now they’re looking to get cut in on the action.
Or just plain, old fashioned American entrepreneurship?
Without the games, there would be nothing to bet on. So, to argue that the leagues should get a cut is logical and economically justifiable, even if it is morally and ethically inconsistent with the stance the leagues have taken for years.
It’s all about the bottom line, something a mob bookmaker or loan shark would clearly understand and appreciate. When money is involved, institutions like the NFL are willing to make adjustments.
It seems that in sports—just as in government and politics—morality and ethics are nothing more than commodities. Each comes with a price attached. In every situation the choice and the questions are the same as those faced by a gambler or a wise guy operating outside the law.
What’s the risk? What’s the consequence? And how much am I willing to pay?
The NFL took a financial hit last year over the issue of players taking a knee during the national anthem. Television ratings dropped. Now there’s a rule in place to ensure that taking a knee is not something we’ll see during the pre-game ceremony.
And that may be the ultimate irony.
The flag is a symbol of democracy. In a democracy, any citizen has a right to protest. Taking a knee is not a sign of disrespect, but rather public recognition of what the flag stands for.
Put a price on that.