Whether Americans like it or not, gambling -- both legal and illegal -- is an indelible part of the sports landscape. Traditionally, those wagers are limited to professional and collegiate contests.
According to the ESPN program Outside the Lines, that's not the case in Florida, where men in their 20s and 30s have begun placing audacious bets on pee wee football games. With on-site bookies carefully tracking bets, OTL reported that games featured bet totals that reportedly reached as high as $75,000 for select postseason action.
"The ones that are out there at the games, they're just out there freelancing," Ron Thurston, a head coach in the South Florida Youth Football League, told ESPN. "They're just trying to get a bet. But the behind the scenes, those are the ones that are scary."
Among the onlookers who were appalled at the "action" off the field at SFYFL games was Al Harris, a former cornerback for the Green Bay Packers whose son played in the league for a number of years.
"Just to be straightforward, these guys, they're drug dealers who are doing this gambling," Harris told ESPN. "They're the only guys that have this type of money to bet on little kids.
"They got a point spread for little league football."
As shocking as the concept of betting on youth football may be, the lack of organized resistance to the budding betting circuits has been equally shocking. ESPN reported that uniformed officers aren't even present at every league game. When they are, the Fort Lauderdale police chief said that those officers are forced to focus on breaking up fights in the stand and deal with other crowd control issues.
Additionally, because the technical crime of betting on a youth football game is so minor, the police department has seen little reason to try and convict the men accused of betting on the games, regardless of what denomination they use for bets.
That reluctance to crack down on wagering has led to a culture of corruption and violence, with Thurston telling ESPN that he has seen men in the stands wielding guns and players and their parents receiving large cash payments for strong performances or for agreeing to pay for one team over another.
Sometimes the men paying those parents are coaches while other times the payments and gifts -- like new clothes and sporting goods for players in the severely lower income area of Fort Lauderdale that provides a bulk of the league's 30,000 players between the age of 5 and 15 -- come from the bookies in the stands themselves. Either way, the payments and gifts completely change the dynamic of one of the few American sporting institutions that is widely held to be sacrosanct and free from such troubling external influences.
"A lot of parents, they wait on football season because it's payday to a lot of them," Pastor Wesley Smith, whose son formerly competed in the league, told ESPN. "A lot of them [are] single[-parent] homes. … Because the dad, a real dad, is not going to let this guy in and talk to Mom about taking their son somewhere to play.
"You never know if that kid's mom's not working, or if the father's there, or the father's not working. These kids may use that money to help Mom pay the rent. It would be hard for a 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-old to say, 'Well, no, I'm not going to take the 150 bucks from whoever it is to play a game that I'm going to play anyway for free.'"