When gangsters and middle men take hold of sport

One of the many interesting little anecdotes that emerged out of the James ’Whitey’ Bulger conviction on Monday was the fact that his lawyers had fought successfully for the Boston gangster to keep possession of a 1986 Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup ring.

Bulger’s going to prison for the rest of his life so it’s not completely clear what will be done with the ring, but of all the items and chunks of cash seized from his Santa Monica hideout in 2011, this intriguing bit of memorabilia will remain far from the clutching hands of the FBI.

This was a huge and dramatic case for the city, obviously, and if there was ever even a slim chance of being somehow redeemed in the eyes of Bostonians, Bulger blew it when he, or someone close to him, decided they needed to hold onto a souvenir of when their bitter arch-rivals from across the border were winning their 23rd cup.

I can’t imagine that a self-respecting Barcelona supporter would ever take possession of any sort of Real Madrid medal or that a Limerick hurling fan could even look at a Tipperary Celtic Cross with anything other than disdain.

But that’s the sort of amoral universe Bulger thrived in as a murderous gangster and hypocritical turncoat.

“The parties have agreed to exclude a Stanley Cup ring, which the defendant contends was a gift to him by a third-party,” court documents stated.

This got Boston sports observers gleefully wondering about who could possibly have come close enough to Bulger to offer him a bitter reminder of how arid a landscape the 1980s was for the Boston Bruins teams.

There’s just one player who fits the description, according to the Boston Globe: a former Canadiens hard man called Chris Nilan, a Boston native who ended his career at the Bruins.

Nilan was one of those ‘enforcer’ players that give hockey as bad a name as good. They’re cherished by fans, scorned by the rest of us philistines and almost completely forgotten by everybody when the pain really begins to stretch across their battered faces.

Nilan was nicknamed Knuckles, which is probably most of what you need to know about him and his role in that Stanley Cup-winning team. The intriguing tie he had to the gangster which probably led to him gifting the ring was his marriage to Karen Stanley, daughter of Bulger’s late girlfriend Teresa.

There’s something mesmerising about the way criminality slots so comfortably into sport. It’s an ancient phenomenon but when Bulger is arrested in a Red Sox cap or strongly rumoured to have attended this year’s Stanley Cup Game 7 (a pulsating win for Chicago), even a notoriously proud fan-base such as Boston’s, which operates on various levels of siege mentality, couldn’t rally around their most infamous thug.

In an eye-opening column this past weekend, Richie Sadlier exposed that further layer of grease forced upon footballers by the whole industry which laps toxically around them.

He spoke anonymously to two agents who revealed they were routinely hindered by mysterious middle men who held all the cards when it came to benefiting financially from a player’s transfer.

The threat of violence or, at the very least, extreme inconvenience hung over their day-to-day operations. But they wouldn’t swap it for anything, they told Sadlier. Their shadowy lives were “more interesting, more rewarding” than anything they’d ever done.

Which is all very well but at the core of criminality is a parasitic impulse to drain a resource and hopefully move on without being caught.

We’re the chumps left behind wondering what happened to our sports.

Like, for example, the Jockey Club in America which revealed this past weekend that it has moved up to DEFCON Two, extremely worried about the effect of drugs on their beleaguered industry.

Money will be pumped into out-of-competition testing to stem the tide of chronically low confidence from betting circles.

According to the New York Times, a poll found that when handicapping races at certain racetracks or in certain states, nearly four in five bettors — 79% — considered the possibility of illegal drug use. Even more said they bet less because “they had to factor in the possibility of illegal drug use”.

The same newspaper cited research they completed last year which found that the rate of horse deaths per week (24) was way above the norm for countries without a major drug problem.

That’s a shocking byproduct of what’s left behind when gangsters and middle men move on.

john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

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