Aside from Tiger Woods, is there any iconic professional athlete who has produced more distracting drama than Alex Rodriguez? He’s been caught carousing with a stripper in Toronto and admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. He once tried to avoid being tagged out by slapping the ball out of a pitcher’s glove, and another time, while rounding the bases, he yelled at an infielder to try to distract him from catching a teammate’s routine pop fly; both instances only enhanced his reputation as a diva. It was during the final outs of the 2007 World Series that A-Rod and his agent let the media know he had decided to opt out of his already massive New York Yankees contract, thus overshadowing the Boston Red Sox’s victory and feeding his image as a serial narcissist. Kissing a mirror during a magazine photo shoot did nothing to quiet his critics.
And just when it seemed like A-Rod might have matured and moved past his confounding behavior — in 2009, the slugger shed his status as a playoff choker in leading the Yankees to the World Series title, and he has recently only made off-field headlines for dating Cameron Diaz — a new tabloid scandal is in the cards. Earlier this week, it was reported that Major League Baseball plans to investigate allegations that Rodriguez participated in high-stakes underground poker games.
According to a new report from Star magazine, Rodriguez played underground poker on two occasions. One game was allegedly run out of a Beverly Hills mansion, and according to the Star report, one participant — not Rodriguez — used cocaine during the game. A fight nearly broke out when a player refused to pay up. In another game, which A-Rod reportedly helped organize in Miami, one gambler who lost tens of thousands of dollars allegedly called in some muscle to intimidate the other players and avoid paying his debts, the report said. A freaked-out A-Rod, according to Star, fled the scene.
One of the sources for the Star story, poker pro Dan Bilzerian, has subsequently told the New York Daily News that Rodriguez was not present at the Beverly Hills game. Richard Rubenstein, Rodriguez’s publicist, offered this statement: “The story contains factual inaccuracies and Alex looks forward to cooperating with MLB in their investigation.”
The statement notably does not actually deny that Rodriguez played some kind of underground poker. Rodriguez’s behavior could draw the ire of MLB officials, who asked Rodriguez to steer clear of unregulated card games as far back as 2005, when the Daily News reported that Rodriguez was frequenting New York’s underground poker scene.
Pro sports frown on players or staff engaging in even recreational gambling; despite the loads of money that are wagered every year on sporting events (Super Bowl, March Madness), the leagues worry that even the perception that a player could end up consorting with people who might have an interest in influencing the outcomes of games would hurt the integrity (read: popularity and profitability) of the sports. For that reason, even though they don’t actively discourage fans from betting on games, the major leagues have resisted the idea of Las Vegas getting its own franchise.
Baseball is particularly sensitive to all things gambling because of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when bettors paid Chicago White Sox players to throw the World Series. And all-time hits leader Pete Rose might not have bet on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, to lose, but since he did bet on baseball, he got excommunicated for life.
If Rodriguez did indeed take part in poker games, he’d be in good (or bad, depending on your view) company. Stars like Charles Barkley and John Daly have all suffered multimillion-dollar gambling losses. Woods is no stranger to high-stakes Vegas games, and Phil Mickelson was rumored to be a major gambler. In the early 1990s, Michael Jordan admitted to losing $57,000 in golf and poker debts to a convicted drug dealer. In a 1993 book, author Richard Esquinas wrote that he won $1.2 million from Jordan in golf games. That same year, Jordan allegedly spent the night before a playoff game against the New York Knicks at an Atlantic City casino. NBA commissioner David Stern launched an investigation into Jordan’s activities; the probe ruled that Jordan did not violate any league rules. Jordan has since admitted to reckless betting. “It’s very embarrassing. One of those things you totally regret,” Jordan told CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2005. “So you look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I was stupid.’”
Why do so many star athletes risk damage to their wallets, their reputations and possibly their legs by participating in these unsavory games? An athlete needs self-confidence to thrive on the field, but often that same self-confidence can lead to bad decisions. “All their lives, these guys have been the best at what they do,” says David Schwartz, director for the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “So they’re used to beating the house.”
Athletes are also adrenaline junkies, which is a key reason it’s so hard for them to retire. Gambling is a relatively safe way to get this competitive fix. It’s no wonder many top athletes, even if they don’t play poker, are known for turning almost any game, from golf to Scrabble, into a wagering opportunity. After all, if they were to break a leg while jumping out of an airplane, their contracts would likely be voided. (Though, inexplicably, several athletes have risked their careers riding motorcycles. Fresh off a Super Bowl victory, Ben Roethlisberger narrowly escaped a career-threatening injury during a 2006 bike crash; in 2003, Chicago Bulls guard and former Duke University star Jason Williams was injured in a motorcycle accident. The crash ended his playing career.)
But it’s not like they don’t have more mainstream alternatives, even when it comes to gambling. A-Rod could have just played poker at an Atlantic City casino. Sure, in a casino setting someone could quickly post a cell-phone picture of A-Rod to the Web, causing him some embarrassment. But at least he’d be betting legally, in a regulated environment.
And, think about it: If Rodriguez is worried that gambling would hurt his public image, running underground is probably the worst idea. Just staying away from poker is more prudent. When you’re making $30 million a year, that’s a pretty small price to pay.