“It’s just a matter of time before you have a scandal”.
The above words are from Tom McMillen, head of the Lead1 Association, which represents the athletic directors of the 131 largest university programs. McMillen, speaking in 2018, was commenting on the legalization of sports betting and its potential impact on the integrity of college sports. Indeed, the NCAA was involved in the trial that led to the SCOTUS decision on sports betting, acting as the lead plaintiff. The organization was concerned that betting would compromise the integrity of college athletes.
But almost three years after the Supreme Court struck down the 1992 law that prohibited sports betting to Nevada and other select jurisdictions, and around 18 months since the first legal sports bets were placed in Arkansas, there is no sign of anything untoward. That, of course, is a good thing.
But the question of integrity and its links to sports betting does require further scrutiny.
Why were college sports being singled out in the first place? Why moreso than the NFL or MLB? The logic seems to follow the evidence of suspicious betting patterns globally, which tend to come from events like lower league soccer games, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia, or tennis matches featuring players ranked far below the elite level.
All about the money
As you might expect, then, it comes down to money. The logic is that sportsbooks can confidently set out NFL betting odds safe in the knowledge that Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes aren’t going to be influenced by a bribe, given that they will already earn enough for several lifetimes of luxury.
While college sports aren’t exactly low-stakes, particularly football, there is an assumption that unpaid athletes might be more susceptible to being influenced by criminal organizations. Not only due to the financial pressures, but also due to public accessibility to college athletes compared to professionals.
The state of New Jersey was concerned about this, and it took the decision to ban betting on games featuring NJ colleges or college games played within the state’s boundaries. That might seem draconian to someone who has enjoyed placing a bet on the Razorbacks or the Red Wolves, but it is felt that it is a law designed to protect student athletes rather than suck all the fun out of backing your favorite team.
Part of the concern is that sports betting itself has changed. Nobody believes that there will be a ‘Black Sox’ type scandal where an entire team will throw a game. But when it comes to proposition bets (props), there is a fear that an individual might be influenced to do something that seems innocuous, perhaps not even relating to the game’s final result.
Imagine a baseball player told to walk the first batter they face, but then being allowed to play out the game to the best of their ability.
Legal sportsbooks help authorities
Perhaps,ironically, it is the legalization of sports betting that should help reassure doubters. The scandals of the 1970s, such as the Boston College point-shaving scandal, were fueled by illegal betting. Legal bookmakers share data and contact the authorities when suspicious patterns emerge. The movies might show mobsters walking into a Las Vegas sportsbook to place a million-dollar bet on an obscure outcome, but that doesn’t happen in practice.
We don’t mean to get all Pollyanna here. Yes, illegal activity still exists. But it’s a lot more sophisticated and nuanced than persuading a player to throw a game and betting huge amounts of money on it.
Data is the friend of the authorities here, and data doesn’t lie. Analysts can pick up patterns of suspicious betting and player performances that might seem unrelated to the casual observer. But they can only do it with access to the data. Legal sportsbooks provide it willingly, whereas illegal operations will not.
We shouldn’t be complacent about the threat to integrity when it comes to betting on college sports.
After all, while an athlete might refuse a financial bribe, they might react differently when threatened with violence or revenge porn. But we should also be confident that the integrity on a mass scale seems intact so far.
Vigilance is still required, but there folks don’t need to panic that America’s best college athletes will suddenly compromise their values and determination to succeed in every game.