Nine men have been arrested in Broward County, Fla. and charged with felony bookmaking for illegally gambling on youth football games, as well as professional and collegiate sports. The county sheriff said the arrests came after an 18-month investigation.
Code-named Operation Dirty Play, the investigation, authorities said, revealed that South Florida Youth Football League coaches, team affiliates, and even one team president set bets before games. Players in the league ranged in age from 5 to 15.
"For the youth league Super Bowl, the pot was more the $100,000," said Dani Moschella, spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff's Office.
According to ABC affiliate WPLG-TV, six of the nine men charged have previous felony arrests for drugs, assault, and theft.
"These kids are so precious, and to have people with criminal histories like these hanging around them, acting as mentors and coaches is disturbing," Moschella said.
Gambling operations were run out of two local businesses -- Showtime Sports in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. and Red Carpet Kutz Barbershop in Lauderhill, Fla. -- that served as fronts for the illegal betting. While gamblers would mostly place bets on professional and collegiate games at these locations, detectives discovered bets were placed on youth football games as well.
Officers executed search warrants at the two businesses Monday. Only some of the men arrested were charged with keeping a gambling house, according to a statement from the Broward Sheriff's Office.
"If you walked through the back door [of Red Carpet Kutz], it was a bustling, very active gambling house with three windows," said Moschella. "It looked like a barber shop but they didn't cut hair there."
Moschella said that Brandon Bivins, the coach and president of the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes, set up the barber shop. According to his arrest affidavit, Bivins was also the president of Showtime Sports, the other business used as a front for gambling.
Moschella said that the investigation began after the Broward Sheriff's Office received a tip from ESPN back in May 2011, following a series the network did on gambling on youth football in South Florida.
"They brought us footage and asked us about it," she said. "Until that time, we didn't know it was happening."
Moschella said the surveillance footage shot by ESPN for the program "Outside the Lines" showed people openly exchanging money in the stands based on what was happening in the games. But the ongoing investigation revealed that the scheme was more intricate.
"We had no idea that it was going to be the people closest to the kids," said Moschella.
The nine men arrested are currently in custody in Broward County Jail. Their bonds range from $15,000 to $50,000.
While this case involved one league, there are five youth leagues in Broward County alone.
"The investigation is ongoing and this is just the starting point," Moschella said. "We're really hoping to get participation from parents and other people at football games to get more information."