Sports betting in the United States is legal. It has arrived. It’s not going anywhere. It’s only going to grow. It is a glorious thing.
And it shouldn’t be allowed on college athletics.
Colleges are concerned, and they should be
The LA Times ran a story this week covering the growing concern universities have over potential integrity issues around sports betting and college athletes.
The concerns are two-fold and real:
“Officials are worried not just about egregious behavior, such as shaving points or fixing a game. But they also fear that gamblers, including classmates and neighbors, will try to cajole confidential data from insiders — say, about injuries or academic standing — to get an edge.”
Most all recent betting scandals involving athletes come on the fringes of sports. These scandals do not occur at the top tier, where athletes are making so much money they have little to no incentive to shave a few points to enrich some degenerate d-bag or worse, perform at a level that lets their team down. No, betting scandals are more common with athletes who aren’t compensated well and have some financial upside.
In college athletics, the most well-known of those incidents is the 1978-79 Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal (which involved Henry Hill of Goodfellas fame, no relation to William). More recently, this happened at the University of San Diego and in the ‘90’s at Northwestern University.
If you look globally, the same issues persist with professional athletes who are under-compensated.
In Europe, recent scandals include soccer games from lower level leagues or clubs (i.e. not Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, or Ligue 1). This also occurred in 2015 in Italy. Tennis has been very susceptible, with a “tsunami of corruption” happening with lower level matches.
These are good analogs to college sports. Often, the athletes are easier to manipulate as they may have financial needs to cover. This could become particularly pronounced with college football — where universities are making tens of millions off programs off of athletes who make nothing other than a scholarship. Heck, SEC football teams are basically pro-level and those players don’t make a dime. Seeing everyone profit from a sport other than you the athlete certainly can open up issues as sports betting propagates to more and more states.
So why isn’t this already an issue today?
It’s easy to play devil’s advocate here.
Betting on college sports, particularly around bowl season and March Madness, has definitely existed at a high-volume and with vigor in Las Vegas with little to no noise around any potential scandals.
However, Las Vegas closely monitors potential fixing activity. A small pattern of significant wagers on insignificant games is going to sound alarm bells. It’s one thing to influence an athlete in Chicago and make the bet in Vegas. It’s another for a college student to have direct access to an athlete and make a wager based on that information (or incentive provided to the athlete) with only a short drive to a local sportsbook.
This is where integrity fees and surveillance technology really matter
The New York Times this week ran an opinion piece on the importance of market surveillance for sports betting. The gist is:
“Many bookmakers have made efforts to limit fraud and manipulation, but more can be done to ensure a level playing field. Regulators and sporting bodies would be wise to learn the lessons of the financial industry and adopt a range of policies and surveillance tools while the market in the United States for sports betting is still nascent.”
Couldn’t agree with this more.
The article notes how costs for other industries to play “catch-up” to bad behavior often outweigh the costs of just getting proper controls established in the first place.
With sports betting, there’s an existing negative stigma attached (for some) that more established and regulated industries like the financial sector don’t face. After years of sports betting being in the Dark Ages in the U.S., the potential public and legislative backlash from poorly monitored betting activity — especially in college sports — could send sports betting back into the Stone Age.
So what’s the solution?
Yes, betting on college sports does currently exist in Las Vegas. No, there’s not an epidemic of point shaving and match fixing. However, as more states legalize and allow sports betting within their borders, the most prudent route would be to at a minimum delay college athletic wagering.
Get the systems and controls in place at the pro level. Ensure proper market surveillance and integrity protocols are in place.
If so, then and only then roll out sports betting on college football and basketball. The lower profile the sport, the more easy it is to manipulate the athlete.
Let’s not mess this up. It took a long time to get this far. It won’t take much to sports betting reeling backwards again.