Privacy law may keep injuries under wraps

Jul 23, 2002 10:19 AM

A federal law goes into effect in April that will shake the foundation of sports, especially in Las Vegas.

"It will put a hurt on Las Vegas books for sure," said John Avello, the race and sports director at Bally’s/Paris Las Vegas. "Certainly, the game plan for oddsmaking changes significantly."

The law, called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, was approved by Congress in 1996. When enacted, it would increase the protection of health-care information.

Now that may not sound bad, but the ramifications cut to the core of athletics, society and the gaming industry. At best, people would have the right to keep their medical history private and receive treatment from their own physicians.

At worst, teams would not be required to list injuries to the league. If that’s the case, odds on games could be dramatically altered and the authenticity of the games could come into question based upon holding back valuable information.

Former Navy and Oakland Raiders runningback Napoleon McCallum sees the law as an advantage for players and potentially harmful for Las Vegas books.

"It will affect betting because injuries are a factor on how teams play," said McCallum, who owns Digital Prographics, a Las Vegas-based company that produces vehicle wraps, banners and signs.

"As a player, I would be for the law. If I had bruised ribs, I wouldn’t want people to know about them. It will make defenses play honestly. Defenses that know a player is on the field with a pulled hamstring are going to put their fastest people on them to gain an advantage. I see the law as a way to possibly reduce injuries, and I am all for that."

McCallum, whose career was cut short due to injury, acknowledges that there could be talk about games no longer being fair with information held back.

"There may be more spying, more corruption," he said. "People might say the games aren’t on the up and up, but those are the ones who have been spoiled. If Emmitt Smith suddenly is held out of a game, people might be disappointed, but not to the point that they wouldn’t come out and see the Cowboys."

A brilliant New York Times article written by Buster Olney simplifies this complex issue in one simple paragraph.

"If the law was applied strictly to sports, many coaches and managers would happily decline to discuss their players’ injuries because many have long believed that they were compromising a competitive advantage by doing so."

If you read between the lines, the message suggests that some coaches apparently would rather cheat to win, than be honest and lose. No team sport would be spared from public scrutiny over whether the product is genuine and not tainted.

The law could alter games, trades, salaries, gambling lines, fantasy leagues and just about anything else having to do with athletics. Players would have the freedom to decide whether they want medical information shared with the press. The players would also have the right to prevent the team doctor from giving out the information to the public.

"When I was injured, the Raiders allowed me to use a private physician, a right all players have in the NFL," McCallum said. "The private physicians consult with the team doctors. However, that information now would no longer be public."

Teams could hide injuries and gain an unfair advantage. The sports books would be in danger of losing millions of dollars, particularly in pro and college football, by putting out lines based upon players they "think" are going to play.

"We’ll find a way around it because we have 11-10 going for us," Avello said regarding the "vigorish" that allows the house to pay customers just $10 for every $11 football straight-bet wager. The information will be on the Internet for everyone. We’ll just have to dig harder than the public."

Mike Seba, an oddsmaker for the Las Vegas Sports Consultants doesn’t think the law will carry much impact on rating games.

"You will have reports from team beat writers," Seba said. "They will see if the players are really hurt. There’s enough information out on the Internet so that it won’t make much difference if NFL injury reports are eliminated. College football never had injury reports and we have put out accurate lines."