(CBS/AP) DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. - Nine men were arrested in connection to a massive gambling operation that targeted youth football games in South Florida, authorities said Tuesday. The accused included several coaches with extensive criminal background who allegedly exploited kids to turn a profit.
The 18-month long investigation started when ESPN journalists brought surveillance video to Broward County Sheriff's officials, which showed parents openly exchanging money in the stands while watching their kids' tackle football games. Authorities later uncovered that the stakes on pee wee games were high, with more than $100,000 wagered on the youth football championship.
Investigators said coaches routinely met before games and set point spreads, but it is not believed that the games were rigged or that the coaches encouraged players to perform a certain way in order to control the outcome. Authorities said they had no evidence that the players were aware of the bets.
"It's about kids being exploited unfortunately by greedy parents and greedy grown-ups and coaches who were basically nothing more than criminals," Sheriff Al Lamberti said.
Authorities arrested alleged ringleader Brandon Bivins, known as 'Coach B' in the community, after months of surveillance, digging through trash and raiding two gambling houses. He was charged with felony bookmaking and keeping a gambling house. Eight others were also charged Monday with similar charges.
Authorities said the suspects have direct ties to the South Florida Youth Football League and six of the coaches had extensive criminal histories. Bivins was convicted of cocaine possession, grand theft auto and marijuana possession with intent to sell.
According to the league's website, it has 22 clubs and 6,000 players, ranging from pee wee to teens, in three counties. Many of the children come from impoverished neighborhoods. The website says the sole purpose of the league "is to benefit children" and instill wholesome values.
Bold print on the league's website warns that anyone taking bets on games will be asked to leave. "The SFYFL is taking a hard stand on gambling, recruiting, paying kids to play and big hits on players."
Bivins ran a fake barbershop, complete with barber stations and vending machines, as a front for a gambling house, according to an affidavit. Behind what appeared to be a closet door was a narrow hallway leading to a seedy gambling room where Bivins and others took bets on professional, college and youth games behind conspicuously dark tinted windows.
An informant placed numerous bets at Red Carpet Kutz Barbershop and another gambling front, Showtime Sports, during the investigation, according to the affidavit.
Authorities said they seized nearly $40,000 from a drop safe at one of the storefronts and took another $20,000 from Bivins' home. They believe "Coach B" was skimming off the top of the bets.
Lt. Frank Ballante said Bivins was the president of the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes, one of the most successful teams, and oversaw the coaches. He also interacted with the players.
Deerfield Beach City officials ramped up their background screening process for youth coaches about 18 months ago when authorities told them about the investigation, but each city is in charge of setting its own ordinances and they vary widely on the issue.