ESPN 30 for 30: Playing for the Mob (2014)

Directed by Joe Lavine and Cayman Grant

Goodfellas seems the most logical place to start with this review of 30 for 30 film Playing for the Mob. In essence, it’s the real life version of the famed Martin Scorsese film, but on a much lesser scale. Back in the late 1970s, Henry Hill, with the help of then Boston College basketball player Rick Kuhn (no relation) fixed basketball games, allowing Hill and his cronies to cash in big. So what goes into a fix like this? Well, sports have been full of sports gambling scandals, most notably in baseball, and on a few occasions, basketball. In baseball, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Peter Rose are the two most infamous, Jackson for accepting money to throw the 1919 world series (though his statistics suggest he didn’t perform to throw it), and Rose for betting that the team he managed would win.

When it comes to basketball, the fix works a little bit different. It’s not quite as cut and dry. You see, Las Vegas sports books put a point spread on each game, so the better is not saying one team will win or lose, but instead that one team will win/lose by a certain number of points. In this manner, I can place a bet for Villanova, and all that has to happen is Villanova doesn’t LOSE by more than a certain number of points (assuming Villanova is the underdog). Because of this structure, it becomes less difficult to “fix” the outcome of the game, especially for a team as talented as last 1970s Boston College teams. A missed shot there, a turnover here, and that 10 point win quickly becomes a 6 point win, netting the gamblers and mobsters potentially thousands of dollars. And that was how it was done by Henry Hill and Rick Kuhn.

So the controversy arises when asked who was involved and for how much? Obviously Hill and Kuhn were, but how much did Hill make off the fix, and how much did he pay Kuhn? The other factor this film explores is what other players knew about the fix, and actually actively fixed the games? For instance, star and straight-laced Jim Sweeney was implicated, but denies acting on his knowledge and fixing games (the Joe Jackson defense). But the issue the film raises most is the circumstances. Without commenting on the current debate over whether collegiate student/athletes (most notably in football and basketball) should be paid, the film certainly touches on the morality of fixing the game from both sides of the card: the mobster, and the athlete.

As college aged men, many of these players drooled over the opportunity to get some extra bucks, without even thinking about the morality of the fix. And when threatened by mobsters like Henry Hill, with the backing of Jimmy Burke, it’s hard for me to sit here at my keyboard and say I wouldn’t put the fix in to avoid severe punishment from mobsters capable of much more than I can imagine. Even more alarming, however, is how Henry Hill, et al. still think about the whole ordeal. When interviewed, Henry Hill and Paul Mazzei indicate that at the time, they didn’t think what they were doing was illegal. I guess that’s true considering this was a side job to the murder and extortion they had on tap otherwise.

The films greatest folly is its dependence on the fame of the film Goodfellas and how it uses the film as a crutch to frame the narrative being told by Playing for the Mob. The inserted excerpts from the film, and the heavy handed narration by Ray Liotta, who played Hill in the Goodfellas, feels much too on the nose, and takes any heft naturally generated by the story and chalks it up to Hollywood glamour and excitement. Had directors Grant and Lavine allowed the story to speak for itself, it may have been much more impactful an experience. I also wish the conscious of the participants was further examined, delving deeper into their moral compasses than simply asking their involvement. By the end of the film, seeing a free Hill and a free Mazzei cheerily reminiscing about their debauchery, I knew the film was more about entertaining with a story, than delivering a document of an event. The balance of the two is what makes a great documentary. The imbalance produces films like Playing for the Mob.

**1/2 – Average

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