A Risky Future on College Sports Betting

The Supreme Court's decision permitting sports gambling creates a slew of issues for colleges, sports administrators and the NCAA, David Welch Suggs Jr. says.

May 15, 2018
 
Part of the NCAA's antigambling campaign
 

In 1997, I was a lowly intern at the Kansas City Star when, one day, my boss plucked me out of my chair and drove to the headquarters of the NCAA in Overland Park, Kans. In that gloomy building, we sat down on one side of a very large table with a group of sports editors and one or two reporters.

On the other side were Cedric Dempsey, then the director of the NCAA, and members of the men’s basketball committee and the NCAA staff. The NCAA had announced plans to refuse Final Four credentials to any media outlet that ran betting lines or odds for college sports events, so we were treated to a set of lectures on the dangers gambling posed to sports.

The media members pointed out the assorted First Amendment issues with such a ban, and not long afterward the NCAA backed down.

I was just happy to be there while a bunch of older guys grumbled at each other across the table, but the memory came back to me on Monday when the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, effectively allowing states to license sports betting.

During the decade following that meeting in Kansas, I covered a number of federal and NCAA-sponsored initiatives to reduce betting on sports and even to ban sports betting in Las Vegas.

All of those efforts now evidently have come to naught.

I really don’t know much about gambling. I’ve never bet on a game, only gambled in a casino once (staked by a friend’s dad), and just never got the appeal. Same with fantasy sports and video games.

But they’re all dimensions of sports in the 21st century. Just watching the game or learning about the players involved doesn’t seem to be enough for a lot of fans -- they want to watch and have some stake in a game they wouldn’t otherwise care about. So it probably makes business sense to encourage gambling and fantasy, because it will increase interest and engagement.

Twenty-plus years ago, the NCAA was mainly worried about players being compromised by gambling -- either being pressured to shave points, getting in trouble with bookies or becoming addicted. This wasn’t that long after point-shaving scandals at Arizona, Northwestern and Tulane, so to my recollection, the NCAA was worried that any threat to the integrity of the game could result in a loss of viewers. I remember thinking they probably had the more powerful argument against gambling than anything I heard for it, but again, I really didn’t get the appeal. Clearly the commercial tide has swept the other way.

The prevailing assumption seems to be that states will rush to follow New Jersey into offering state-sponsored betting on sports. This will lead to three key issues for state policy makers and others.

First, will they permit betting on college sports, as opposed to the pros? Second, how will they ensure integrity and deal with addiction? And third, who will benefit from state revenues from the vigorish?

To the first, the pros are crowing about the possibility of gambling. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says major league franchises just doubled in value. College leaders have been far less enthusiastic, with the NCAA releasing a grudging statement saying they’ll review the implications and the Knight Commission explicitly calling for states to maintain bans on gambling on amateur and college sports.

Second, who will take responsibility for policing games to ensure integrity? Gambling advocates say the Vegas books will notice aberrations in betting patterns, so would they scale up to cover 60-odd Football Bowl Subdivision games in a given weekend? How about 150 Division I men’s basketball games?

What about other sports and divisions? Could I place a bet on my old cross-country team from Rhodes College?

Finally, here in Georgia, we’ve linked gambling revenues to higher education funding with the state lottery and the HOPE Scholarship. Is it exploitative to link action on college athletes to funding for other students, or is it appropriate to have sports fans help fund the colleges where athletes are ostensibly (and usually actually) students?

All of these questions will play out in each state over the next months and years. They will beget many more questions -- for fans, for athletic administrators and for sports media professors like me.

More broadly, though, this is one more swipe at the idea that sports, particularly college sports, are special kinds of activities that should enjoy some protections from the marketplace. Given the ridiculous sums spent to hire coaches and build facilities, perhaps that’s appropriate.

But it’s unlikely to see how betting would have any benefits for teams and athletes. They aren’t making any money in the first place, as we all know, and betting won’t make things any better for them.

Bio

David Welch Suggs Jr. is an associate professor of journalism and sports media at the University of Georgia.

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