The NCAA’s Trademark Application For ‘DON’T BET ON IT’ Demonstrates Its Failures

Posted By Derek Helling on January 30, 2020

Perhaps no “non-profit” corporation in the United States of America has a richer history of ignoring the best and easiest solution to a problem than the NCAA. The NCAA again demonstrated its rare talent in filing an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for one of its most infamous slogans.

On Jan. 24, the NCAA filed the application for the phrase, ‘DON’T BET ON IT.” While it is defending itself against numerous lawsuits alleging that it neglected to provide adequate care for athletes who suffered concussions, violated Article 1 of the Sherman Act and several of its member institutions face Title IX lawsuits, the NCAA has chosen to spend its resources continuing to feign concern for integrity and fighting a battle it knows it can’t win.

Why the NCAA wants to trademark ‘DON’T BET ON IT’

The NCAA has typically used the phrase in consumer education programs during its annual basketball championship tournaments. The thrust of the campaign is to discourage people from placing bets on the games.

That’s because the NCAA and its members fear that gambling interests could compromise the integrity of the contests. While some employed by the NCAA or its members may genuinely have that concern, the actions of the organizations that employ them haven’t always been in alignment with the theme of discouraging wagers on intercollegiate sports.

Isolating the NCAA’s treatment of its annual tournament to award its D1 men’s basketball championship, there are conflicts in messaging. The NCAA posts easy to download and free-to-print and distribute brackets on its website for that tournament each year as soon as the Selection Sunday Show that it sells the rights to airs.

There’s no element more crucial to office pools on the tournament or sportsbooks’ posting of odds on those games than that bracket. If the NCAA is as deadset against people betting on those contests, then why is it so openly facilitating that behavior by making it convenient?

The inconsistency between the NCAA’s public relations campaigns and its daily operations go beyond posting an XML file to its website, however. It pervades through every facet of how the NCAA does business and sports betting demonstrates that inconsistency very well.

The NCAA’s silence on gambling expansion is deafening

Since it lost Murphy v. NCAA at the US Supreme Court in December 2018, the NCAA’s fight against the expansion of legalized sports betting has gone AWOL. Even in Indiana, where the NCAA makes its headquarters, retail and online sportsbooks now offer an array of wagers on NCAA American football and men’s basketball games without as much of a peep from the NCAA about it.

While the NCAA is already spending a significant chunk of its operating budget fighting other legal battles, this shouldn’t be a budgetary concern if it is serious about its opposition to wagering on its contests. It costs very little to send a representative to a legislative hearing or mail a letter to a state gaming commission during an open comment period.

It’s absolutely free to compose a Tweet that says, “we don’t want people betting on our games and think that should remain illegal.” Yet the NCAA has taken none of these actions in any of the states which have legalized wagering on sporting events since PASPA fell.

It’s probably because internally, the NCAA realizes that it would be campaigning against a cultural shift that has already taken place. The biggest loss is that the NCAA’s desire to perpetuate a perception of being anti-gambling means lost opportunities for not only fans but itself as well.

How the NCAA could help instead of being part of the problem

Instead of discouraging all wagering, the NCAA could instead be part of the push to encourage bettors to use legal sportsbooks instead of offshore, unregulated channels. The best regulated markets afford the athletic teams at NCAA-member institutions protection from people who seek to compromise the integrity of those contests.

The NCAA could also use the resources it is spending on its anti-gambling campaign to instead educate athletes, coaches, officials, etc. on how to handle situations in which they encounter match-fixing. Its communication channels would also be a tremendous resource for awareness campaigns about treatment for those with compulsive gambling issues.

The NCAA and its members could also greatly reduce the risk of match-fixing by repealing their draconian by-laws that exploit the athletes whose labor creates the product. Recognizing them as employees and allowing them to collectively bargain for the terms of that labor would do a lot to mitigate that liability.

But all that flies in the face of the NCAA’s desire to exist in a fantasy land in which no one uses its men’s tournament brackets for any purpose other than simply following along with the games and athletes are merely students who play games for fun. The NCAA’s trademark application is another way it demonstrates its faux morality while it could be doing more actual good by operating within reality.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Chicago. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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