- Paula Lavigne
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Pee wee players take the field in the morning, with parents and young siblings scattered through the stands. But as day turns to night, and the boys on the field get bigger and older, the crowd grows and the atmosphere begins to shift.
Groups of men in their 20s and 30s fill the stands and sidelines, to the point that passers-by must jostle for space as they walk along fences separating the bleachers from the field. And then something else becomes obvious: Wads of bills start switching hands; cheers and fist pumps are followed by exchanges of money; and men debate how much to put down next time. Marijuana smoke is often in the air, and adults walk around with cups of alcohol seemingly without concern.
An "Outside the Lines" investigation found such scenes several times this past fall in the South Florida Youth Football League, which is made up of 30,000 children ages 5 to 15 from Palm Beach to Miami. In the packed crowds, OTL producers saw men holding stacks of bills -- often in large denominations -- as they watched the games. Using hidden cameras, OTL recorded the men openly exchanging money with one another, even as they were just a few feet from a uniformed police officer in one instance. But the exchange of money in the stands was the small stuff, OTL found -- sometimes the games had tens of thousands of dollars bet on them, and players were often paid for making big plays.
Former players and coaches say the gambling and paying of players and their parents has gone on for years, yet some league and law enforcement officials told ESPN they were not aware of the extent of the problems until "Outside the Lines" conducted interviews and showed the officials its undercover video. One man seen on video exchanging money in a group at the league's super bowl is a longtime coach in the league and city recreation leader.
"At some of the games, the money is being dealt so wide open a blind man could see the gambling taking place," said the Rev. Wesley Smith, a local pastor who had his son switch leagues a couple of years ago because he was worried that an argument over high-stakes gambling debts would lead to violence at one of the parks.
Ron Thurston, 34, who has been a head coach in the league since 2005 and is a Broward County sheriff's deputy, estimates that about a fourth of the crowd at games is criminals.
"And that's a lot to be around kids," he said. He recalled an incident when an off-duty detective alerted him to a guy who was threatening to shoot a coach. When Thurston got to him, "sure enough, he has a loaded gun on him, a 9-millimeter, one in the chamber."
Al Harris, an NFL cornerback who played for the Green Bay Packers until last year, when he was signed by the Miami Dolphins, grew up in the South Florida Youth Football League and watched his son play there until he began high school a few years ago.
"Just to be straightforward, these guys, they're drug dealers who are doing this gambling," he said. "They're the only guys that have this type of money to bet on little kids."
Harris recounted a game in which he butted into a group of guys and asked them what they were up to.
"They pretty much let me know, 'OK, we're betting this much on this and this much on this play and the point spread.' They had a point spread. They got a point spread for little league football," he said.
The take for the winner that day was $20,000 on a regular-season game, he said. For a recent league super bowl matchup, he said, the pot was $75,000.
Thurston said the bigger bets often take place before the games. "The ones that are out there at the games, they're just out there freelancing," he said. "They're just trying to get a bet. But the behind the scenes, those are the ones that are scary."
Players, parents get paid
Thurston and Harris, who are friends, said it wasn't always like this. When they played in the league in the 1980s, they said, a more family-friendly crowd of moms, dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles attended games. Now, the games draw high school coaches looking for recruits and guys from the neighborhood looking to make a quick buck.
Teams in the league often draw from the region's rougher, low-income neighborhoods, where football fields are next to housing projects and drive-by shootings can break out just blocks away. In the past two years, records show that police responded to more than 5,000 incidents within about a quarter-mile radius of Fort Lauderdale's two city football fields, hundreds of which were violent crimes.
"You'll see guys who you know really have no interest in football," Harris said. "You have a lot of foul language now that you didn't hear back then. … You've got smoking and drinking, and it's all kinds of stuff that goes on now."
Thurston said he tries to keep his players isolated from negative forces, including the gambling. He said he pushes homework, demands to see report cards and won't let kids play if they don't make grades.
"A lot of the kids look to the coaches as the mentor, as the father. They don't have fathers at home," he said, noting that he has arrested several of the players' dads for other offenses. "I try to keep them all on the good path."
But sometimes, the gamblers win. And the children get hurt.
Before some gamblers bet on a team, they'll invest in it, said Smith, the local pastor. Gamblers study kids, and they find the good players whose dads are in prison and whose moms are barely making ends meet to put food on the table for their children, he said.
They offer a mom $2,000 to have her son play for a certain team, and, throughout the season, they give her son clothes, shoes and money to give him an incentive to play well, Smith said.
According to Smith, the gambler's point of view is, "I'm recruiting these kids to play for this team because this is the team I'm going to be betting on all year." He added that many coaches are also in on the deal.
The way Smith describes it, the return on investment is more certain than the stock market: Give the boy and his mom $5,000 to $10,000 throughout the season. Make as much as $20,000 to $30,000 per game for eight to 10 games.
Thurston said he lost one potential player when another team offered the boy's mother $3,500.
"A lot of parents, they wait on football season because it's payday to a lot of them," he said. "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."
Although the parents should know better, Harris said it's hard to blame the players, who often receive cash for making big plays.
"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," he said. "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.'"
Rob Glover was one of those boys. In the late 1990s, Glover was a 9-year-old star running back with the Pompano Beach Cowboys who attracted a lot of attention -- and money.
"Back then, I was a kid. I didn't know what was going on," said Glover, who is now 23. "But at the time -- playing the game, scoring a lot of touchdowns -- people who know me, people who didn't know me just wanted to give me all kinds of cash and stuff. It was good at the time, but now I know it's a bad thing to do."
One of his former coaches, Osbert Small, said Glover had "college-level potential."
"We have some football players that didn't have his ability that made it on to professional football right now," Small said. "They made the right turns in life. They got an education. They stayed within school."
Glover said he spent the weeks waiting for the weekends, when he knew he would get paid, sometimes into the thousands, he said. He ignored his schoolwork. As a teenager, he couldn't make it in high school and dropped out. That's also when he started getting in trouble with the law.
"The money, it did something to me," he said.
Glover's story is a familiar one.
Gamblers pay children who become "superstars," who believe football is their "escape out of the hood," Smith said.
"There's no component for academics. The majority of these kids, when they reach ninth grade, they're too old to play little league ball," Smith said. "They're 15, now you have to go to high school. The kids cannot keep a C average. If you don't keep a C average, you can't play ball."
He and others said the boys lose respect for school, parents, coaches and the law, as the drug dealers who are often supporting them bring them into their fold.
"You have some kids who grow up thinking that that's the way to go. 'I may be playing little league football, but when I finish, I'm going to be up there with Joe or Bill selling dope or doing this. Look how he's living,'" said Harris, who is 36.
"I've seen a lot of kids out there that were extremely talented. And now when you go to the games, you see those same guys and they're watching the games now, not in school, just hanging out," he said.
"They kind of turn into the bad guy."
"The crime itself is so minor … "
Despite what seems like common knowledge of the gambling and the problems it can cause, league and law enforcement officials say it's a difficult issue to address.
South Florida Youth Football League president Michael Spivey said he wasn't aware that gambling was such a problem until "Outside the Lines" showed him video shot at some of the games.
"There's a lot of rumors, a lot of hearsay, and now, looking at it, I see it's a big concern now," he said.
The league could fire any coaches or officials caught gambling, but that's about all it can do, Spivey said.
"We can't control it, … I wouldn't walk up to one of these people and ask them what are they doing or [tell them] 'Stop gambling.' That's why we have police officers."
Then Spivey watched more video, including a clip that showed men exchanging money within six feet of a police officer.
"I really have a problem now with seeing this with a police officer standing right there, and seeing this type of activity going on right here, you know I have questions for the police department that the people that we pay money to more or less safeguard our kids," he said.
"Outside the Lines" took that concern, and video, to Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Franklin Adderley. He said officers at those games are preoccupied with crowd control, breaking up fights and keeping people off the field. Yet Adderley said gambling is not something that should be tolerated.
"I think it's a bad message to the kids, and I don't think that's something that we should ignore, and I don't think that's something we should condone," he said.
Adderley said if he saw men who appeared to be gambling, he would issue them trespass notices and eject them from the park. Actually making arrests and getting convictions would require using undercover officers to try to engage the gamblers in a bet, he said.
"That way, we can show the intent of the crime and it gives us some more chance of conviction in court," Adderley said.
But that's a lot of work to get a few guys convicted of a second-degree misdemeanor, which is about as serious as driving with a suspended license, said Sgt. William Cunneen, who is in charge of the organized crime unit with the Broward County Sheriff's Department.
"The crime itself is so minor that it would almost be a joke to arrest somebody for it because they would be out before the paperwork was completed on the arrest," he said.
Cunneen also doubted that an undercover officer could pull it off because the gamblers are from the neighborhood and would spot an outsider trying to place a bet, he said.
Officers could ask neighborhood informants to do the job, but he said there was no benefit to outing an informant to get convictions on such a minor crime.
"This would have to be a total-community-involvement-type issue," he said. "It would have to be something where you would get the officials who are in charge of the park, the officials in charge of the football league, the parents and law enforcement together and make it a concerted effort to rid these guys and make it an unattractive place to hang out and gamble."
Police say there are no complaints
After watching the OTL video, Adderley said that he doesn't doubt that gambling occurs but that it's simply something people don't complain about.
Parents who are getting money from gamblers aren't going to talk, Thurston said.
"A lot of them see it as their meal ticket," he said. "They don't want their money to go away in the police car."
Others could be afraid to talk, as "Outside the Lines" found out when several parents, who were upset with the gamblers, refused to talk because they feared retribution.
But Adderley said people have several means of contacting the police while staying anonymous, including a hot line that received thousands of complaints about other crimes, such as drug dealing and burglaries. The chief lives across the street from one of the parks, and he said people complain to him about all sorts of things -- but never gambling.
"I think that where the rubber really meets the road here is it's happening in the neighborhood and it's not a big concern of the neighborhood. If this was really a big concern of the neighborhood, we would have had complaints," he said. "And we haven't received any complaints like this.
"So, is it a fair conclusion that the people that are aware of this activity haven't brought it to the police department's attention because they condone it? On the surface, I think you can come to a fair conclusion to that," he said.
Small, who used to coach Glover, is still coaching with the Pompano Beach Cowboys and has worked as a recreation leader for the city of Pompano Beach for more than 20 years.
He said the people who complain about gambling are the ones who refuse to do anything about it.
"Every level of football, you have gambling," he said. "But how, what could we possibly do to shut down all -- to make it a zero percentage of gambling? You can't do it, it can't be done. But we can deter it as much as we can to keep it away from the kids."
"Gambling could lead to violence, and we are strongly trying to deter people from gambling," he added.
However, Small didn't appear to be deterring gambling when spotted on video of the league's super bowl game in November. Instead, he was exchanging money with several men who appeared to be gambling in the stands.
When asked whether he was gambling, Small said he never bet on his team and was only "holding money for an individual."
"They wanted me to, uh, I assume to hold it. And I gave most of it, I'll give it all back to 'em," he said.
Small, 44, said he's around a lot of men with criminal backgrounds because he works as a bail bondsman. He said he has told the men around him that he doesn't want to take part in their gambling, but, "I'm one of the guys they trust, I guess."
"Sometimes, ah, you don't want to get involved, too much involved with the police. I am not the enforcer to the league. I'm not a police officer. I'm not going to put myself at harm being known as the gentleman who's doing this and that, doing the telling. I can't do it," he said.
"Maybe I could have said something that deterred them from coming around me. But as far as that gambling goes, they were gonna, they were gonna do it."
If the boys he coaches today saw him in the stands with the men who were gambling, he said it would probably be a "big blow" to them, but he said he hoped they would still trust him.
"I know, coming out of the community of despair, they need strong leaders. I felt that I am one of the strong leaders and possibly made a mistake by being around certain individuals," he said. "I just want the kids to know that they can still depend on O.Z. because I'm still going to do what I do for them for the last 20 years."
One of those boys who counted on Small was Glover, the former player who took money from gamblers as a boy. Small had been his coach, and was his bail bondsman when Glover was arrested in 2009.
On an evening in late March of this year, Glover sat in a plastic chair behind an acrylic glass window during visiting hours at a Broward County jail.
He had landed there about three weeks earlier after violating the terms of his probation: He was convicted of felony cocaine possession in 2009.
The married father of two was released from jail a few weeks ago and is back washing cars with his uncle, which he said is the only job he could get. The money he got from playing little league ball is just a memory, yet it's a reality he faces when he runs into the guys who used to bet on him.
"In the long run, I ain't never get none. The only thing I got was a couple thousand dollars going down the drain tomorrow," he said. "Money like paper, it just blows."
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at email@example.com. Producer Greg Amante contributed to this report.
Gambling, criminal influences surround popular South Florida youth football league