It’s hard to think of a more colorful sports documentary topic than “Playing for the Mob,” the latest gem presented under ESPN’s “30 for 30” banner, which feels like a movie — largely because it’s already been one. Narrated by Ray Liotta, the film chronicles the Boston College point-shaving scandal in the late 1970s, orchestrated by none other than Henry Hill, Liotta’s “Goodfellas” character, and his various associates. Directors Joe Lavine and Cayman Grant have footage from practically every participant — players and mobsters alike — yielding a project that’s at times disarmingly funny and even, in an odd way, educational.
Not surprisingly, the standout portion of the festivities is an interview with Hill — who turned informer on his comrades — conducted before his death in 2012. He talks freely (and profanely) about recruiting and threatening Boston College players to win games by less than the betting margin, thus allowing the mob to cash in by wagering on their opponents.
Still, just how compliant the players were in the scheme remains the subject of some debate: Team captain Jim Sweeney insists he took some money, mostly out of fear, but didn’t shave points; and standout guard Ernie Cobb, who maintains to this day that he never participated in the scheme, despite accepting $1,000 at one point. (Rick Kuhn, who did admit his culpability and served time, said his take amounted to about $10,000.)
While the players talk about their understandable fear 35 years ago (cement shoes were mentioned), the real stars of the piece are, inevitably, the made guys, with one matter-of-factly saying in regard to Hill, “Henry ratted us out, and I just never liked him after that.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is how the scandal — which rocked the sports world — was really a surrogate form of prosecution for a case the Feds couldn’t make, allowing them to go after Jimmy Burke (“Goodfellas’ ” Robert De Niro character), in much the way Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion.
No fools, the directors liberally incorporate clips from “Goodfellas” to punctuate the proceedings, giving the 77-minute docu (which will play with limited commercials) a cinematic feel. The only clunky note is a staged reunion between Hill and one of his former colleagues, which feels tacked on and unnecessary.
For ESPN, whose journalism in terms of independence from the major sports leagues it covers has occasionally come under fire, “30 for 30” represents a highly effective prestige-building exercise. On those terms, a first-class effort like “Playing for the Mob” can only help run up the score.