College Sports Must Defend Against New Gambling Risks

When the United States Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in the case that began as Christie v The NCAA it opened a new front for coaches and administrators at major college sports programs. It presents an increased threat to the integrity of the game.

Although the legal sports gambling industry was limited to Nevada, illegal bookies existed in almost every community in America. This decision brings that multi-billion dollar stealth industry out of the shadows.

But what is gained in legality will present new issues. Here are a few areas where schools must be vigilant.

1. Association with People Who Run Casinos/Sports Books: Whether they are alums or owners of a casino that may be an athletic department corporate sponsor there should be no association. An alum with sports book interests sitting on a University’s governing body is both in a position to influence policy at the school or to access information about injuries or personal information about players.

Major donors often develop personal relationships with the head football or basketball coach. If the starting quarterback is a question mark for a big game what keeps that casino operator alum from calling the head coach to get the scoop? A coach on the hot seat needing the backing of prominent boosters might be willing to casually mention whether someone is playing or not. That information would give that alum's sports book vital information that no one else would have.

And in the era where schools are selling donors access to their programs (attending practice, riding on team planes) there is also a danger in having that same alum strike up relationships with current players on the team.

Schools should be sure policies are in place requiring Trustees or donors to reveal any financial interests or stakes they have in any sports book operations and then to bar these people from access to their athletic programs.

2. The Point-Shaving or Game-Fixing Threat: Decentralization of the Sports Book industry will increase these threats. In the past when Vegas saw a suspicious spike in action on a particular game they pulled the game and alerted authorities. With more places taking bets people working a fix can spread their bets across a wider array of venues making it harder to detect. The sports book business is probably already hard at work devising the algorithms to detect unusual betting patterns. But people wanting to fix games are probably working even harder to devise ways to get around them.

3. The Threats From Players: Pro athletes who can throw a game one way or another make too much money now to risk throwing a game for $100,000. But college players are a whole other thing. A payout to make sure they win their basketball game by 9 instead of 11 is pretty easy to get away with. Schools will have to be extra vigilant now that there will be more widespread legal sports books within reach of major sports programs.

Schools also need policies on student-athletes gambling on sports. Many past fixing scandals involved athletes who’d gotten behind in gambling who were subsequently approached to fix the game to have their debt forgiven. There are potential pitfalls all over the place. Schools should put policies in place preventing student-athletes from betting on sports and requiring them to report any contacts they have with anyone who may be in the industry.

4. Game fixing with Officials: There is no easier way to fix a game than with the officials.With more sports gambling now legal in more places that threat rises again. Why officials? Paying off the starting quarterback to shave points could backfire if he gets hurt in the first quarter. Officials finish the game. In football they can call a holding penalty on any play and bring back a touchdown. They can call defensive holding on just about every play and overturn interceptions, sacks and fumbles. Background checks already in place on officials must remain a high priority. Much like players, officials should also be prohibited from gambling on the sports they officiate.

Like it or not, big-money legal sports gambling is about to undergo explosive growth. That fact portends potential threats that will grow exponentially. With an ounce of prevention being greater than a pound of cure, universities will need to take action and find ways to try and prevent conflicts of interest from the administrative level on down to the student-athletes and the officials.

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© 2014 Jay Paterno