A Gambler's Empathy

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Incorrect officials' calls have been a big back story in this year's NFL season. Come Mondays, newspaper headlines in various NFL cities have blared outrage over Sunday's inept calls, a few of which have, in hindsight and further video review, proven to actually have changed the final score. But the rants and raves were at an all-time decibel this Monday. Sunday's nail-biter between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers was a low-scoring battle of defenses. Neither offense got into a groove and the score stayed low right down to the last play.

I love football, love the NFL and have followed the NFL all my life. So a close Sunday game on a snowy afternoon, tough linemen macho with their arms bare on a frozen field, is pure heaven to me. This Sunday I was up off the couch through the final minutes of the game. The Chargers were leading 10-8 but with a mere 15 seconds left, the Steelers kicked a critical field goal and went ahead 11-10. I no longer wager on football games but I used to and I must admit I experience a literal surge of gambler's empathy adrenaline when things get tight. I grew up the daughter of a con artist and I might have inherited the excitement for cards, dice, and sports books from him. I've never been reckless, never bet the farm on a game, but I'll go so far as to miss a flight if I'm on a roll at the craps table. My best friend and I play cribbage for dog food and scrabble for car washes. I host a friendly poker game at my house once a month. And my betting on the NFL was all legal and never irresponsible, but I quit because I was so consumed that I followed every injury, every weather report, every possible detail throughout the week and then gave away every Sunday, all day Sunday, for the entire fall and much of the winter. I wanted my life back.

So I still love the NFL but I don't bet the games any more. But when a game is close, something in me triggers a tight chest, shallow breath, and a tremendous empathy for those who have bet the game.

The point spread on the Steelers/Chargers game was 4. Whether the Chargers had kept it at 10-8 and won or the Steelers had kicked that last-minute field goal and won 11-10 meant the same to betters. If you bet the Steelers would cover the 4 points, you lost. Some $100 million was bet legally on the game, about two thirds of that, or $66 million, on the Steelers. Let's not even get into how much was wagered illegally. So, we're down to the last play of the game. The Steelers went ahead 11-10 with 15 seconds to go and will win the game but not cover the spread. Then a most improbable, crazy, chaotic play happened whereby the Chargers lost control of the ball on a series of lateral passes and a Steelers defensemen recovered and took the ball into the end zone for another Steelers score. Now they did cover their spread. Score: Steelers 17, Chargers 10. My heart was pounding. Obviously, it wasn't the outcome. The Steelers were going to win, regardless. I was feeling that gambler's empathy. Somehow, like poof magic, they covered the spread. But, no, the head ref addresses the crowd to say there would be no score after all. The score reverted to 11-10. There was an uproar in living rooms and sports bars across America. Then, just at the conclusion of the game, the head ref announced that the touchdown call had in fact been correct. The game should have ended 17-10 but would stay official at 11-10. $66 million legal bucks lay in the balance of that wrong call.

And, that score, 11-10, that incorrect score, was the first time in the history of the NFL, the first time in 12,837 games, that a score of 11-10 had been recorded. Now who in Vegas had that bet?

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: The Steelers' Willie Parker (#39) looks for running room during the fourth quarter in front of the Chargers' Jyles Tucker (#94) on November 16, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images



Diana Nyad