NCAA’s Interest in Gambling by College Athletes Is Growing

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jared Diamond headlined “NCAA’s Interest in Gambling Is Growing”:

Virginia Tech linebacker Alan Tisdale says he never meant to violate the NCAA’s policies on gambling. He used a smartphone app to bet around $400 on the NBA Finals last year, partaking in an activity that has become ubiquitous on college campuses.

Tisdale quickly learned that the rules for athletes were severe and unyielding. Even though he self-reported his transgression, he received an initial suspension of nine games. The penalty was reduced to six games on appeal, but Tisdale still missed half of a football season simply for placing a legal wager on a professional sport he didn’t play.

“You don’t look at the NCAA rulebook 24/7,” Tisdale said. “The majority of the time you assume you know right from wrong. It’s legalized—but not for athletes.”

As Tisdale now prepares for his final year with the Hokies, it appears the NCAA has realized that perhaps his punishment didn’t fit the crime. Sports betting is permitted in most of the country and especially popular among students, who now can—and frequently do, data shows—place wagers in their dorm rooms within seconds.

So more than five years after the Supreme Court ruled that states have the right to legalize sports gambling, the NCAA is adapting to a changing world. The result is a more nuanced approach to gambling that in some circumstances even allows college athletes to bet on sports without being suspended at all.

When the new rules were announced, Tisdale said his girlfriend and mother both reached out to tell him the news. The changes won’t give him back the time on the field that he lost. But they will help the next Tisdale—and considering the state of sports betting in America, there will be a next Tisdale.

“It’s a step forward,” Tisdale said.

All of this comes as the NCAA itself has signaled that it, too, wants to participate in the legal gambling boom.

Last month, at a University of Arizona-hosted event called the Future of College Athletics, NCAA President Charlie Baker left little doubt about the association’s interest in gambling, saying, “We have a major opportunity to get into the sports betting space.”

It’s a significant shift that emphasizes the increasingly complex relationship between the explosion of legal sports gambling and the youngest people allowed to participate in it.

“We’d be naive to believe that [gambling by athletes] isn’t occurring,” said Alex Ricker-Gilbert, the Jacksonville athletic director and the chair of the NCAA committee that ratified the updated regulations late last month. “If we ultimately have a penalty where they completely lose their eligibility, they lose a season for engaging in the act, it’s going to be hard to be legitimate in their eyes as people to go to if they’re struggling with something.”

Officially, college athletes are still prohibited from betting on any sport offered by the NCAA at any level, even seemingly innocuous activities like a tournament bracket pool or picking squares at a Super Bowl party. “That’s still very much the message,” said Jerry Vaughn, the NCAA’s director of academic and membership affairs.

The new rules, however, distinguish between bets that “threaten the integrity of our competition” and those that don’t, Vaughn said.

In practice, this means that players who bet on their own team or other teams at their schools still face the possibility of a permanent ban from college sports. Players who bet on their own sport at other schools would face a half-season ban.

The punishments for other types of gambling—such as wagers on professional sports—are far more lenient and depend on how much money is involved. For violations in which the total amount wagered is $200 or less, the guidelines call only for mandatory gambling prevention education and no loss of eligibility. Suspensions start at 10% of a season for bets above $200 and up to $500, ultimately climbing to 30% of a season for bets over $800. Only when the wagering “greatly exceeds $800” will additional penalties be considered.

Previously, a suspension of one full season was standard in most cases for sports gambling. Under the new rules, Tisdale would’ve missed just one game.

“I suspect that the vast majority of college athletes who have bet on sports had no idea that what they were doing was against the rules,” said John Holden, a business professor at Oklahoma State who has written extensively about sports gambling.

It’s no secret that, for the NCAA, legal sports betting also represents a largely untapped resource to drive massive amounts of revenue. The American Gaming Association released a survey in March that concluded that about 68 million American adults planned to wager $15.5 billion on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Baker’s remark last month about the NCAA’s interest in gambling “raised a lot of eyebrows,” “because the NCAA was the last bastion of the old-school” view of sports gambling, said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling,

Sports betting is especially prevalent among young adults. In a recent NCAA survey of more than 3,500 18- to 22-year-olds, 58% of them said they have participated in sports betting. Of the respondents who lived on a college campus, two-thirds were bettors, and they tended to bet at a higher frequency. The NCAA plans to commission an athlete-only survey in the coming months.

Clint Hangebrauck, the NCAA’s managing director of enterprise risk management, said that some research suggests that the risk for problem gambling is even higher for athletes than their peers in their age cohort.

“What naturally makes them great athletes—their competitive nature, their drive, their ability to take risks—actually works against them from a sports betting standpoint,” Hangebrauck said.

In response to this proliferation of sports betting on campus, the American Gaming Association updated its responsible marketing code this spring to prohibit college partnerships that promote, market or advertise sports wagering. Several schools in recent months have ended their partnerships with sportsbooks early.

Dr. Timothy Fong, the co-director of UCLA’s gambling studies program, said young people are especially at risk for gambling addiction because the ages of 18 to 24 “are a particularly vulnerable period for lots of mental health issues.” The risk has only increased because of the rise of gambling advertising and technological advancements making placing a bet as simple as tapping a phone screen.

“There’s never been a massive and rapid expansion of any addictive behavior this quickly I think in any part of American history,” Dr. Fong said. “Now that’s a little dramatic, but it’s true.”

Athletes certainly aren’t immune to the trend. More than 40 athletes across multiple sports at Iowa and Iowa State are currently being investigated for gambling. There is no evidence, however, of match fixing or any other suspicious wagering on games involving those schools.

If any of those athletes are punished, it would be in accordance with the new guidelines

“They’re recognizing that their zero-tolerance approach doesn’t work in this world,” Whyte said of the NCAA. “They’re also bowing to the reality that there’s a great deal of gambling on campus.”

Jared Diamond is an American geographer, historian, ornithologist, and author best known for his popular science books The Third Chimpanzee (1991); Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997, awarded a Pulitzer Prize); Collapse (2005), The World Until Yesterday (2012), and Upheaval (2019).

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