Sports betting: Gambling could put athletes at risk
Published: September 17, 2018
Longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White stumbled into the role he holds today.
White, vice president of data integrity at Don Best Sports, whose clients include the Big 12 conference, owned Las Vegas Sports Consultants, a company that provided odds and betting information to sports books.
He began receiving complaints from his clients how they were consistently getting destroyed on Mid-American Conference football and basketball game wagers from 2004 to 2006.
White says he dedicated resources to constructing more competitive lines, but his clients ran into the same problem the following year. In trying to figure out what was wrong, he unearthed what appeared to be suspicious activity at the University of Toledo.
Turns out, he was onto something. Eventually, seven former Toledo football and basketball players were convicted and received varying sentences of probation and fines.
Prospects of incidents like the one in Toledo, and other NCAA gambling scandals throughout the years, have resurfaced now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states have the authority to legalize sports gambling.
“Amateur athletes are at the highest risk because there are no paychecks. They don’t make any money,” White said. “They get a stipend a month and a gambler throws down $10,000 in front of them and says, ‘Fix one game — you don’t even need to lose. Just don’t cover the point spread.’ There’s a pretty good chance [they do it].”
As Delaware and New Jersey take their first bets, with Mississippi, West Virginia and Rhode Island likely to be next, states are left to wonder the impact it all will have on college athletics.
To date, the NCAA hasn’t said much beyond a statement released by its president, Mark Emmert, a few days after the court’s decision.
Emmert said the NCAA supports a federal model on legalized sports gambling.
“While we recognize the critical role of state governments, strong federal standards are necessary to safeguard the integrity of college sports and the athletes who play these games at all levels,” he said.
Emmett also expressed concern about the impact on student athletes.
“Our highest priorities in any conversation about sports wagering are maintaining the integrity of competition and student-athlete well-being,” he said. “Sports wagering can adversely impact student-athletes and undermine the games they play. We are committed to ensuring that laws and regulations promote a safe and fair environment for the nearly half a million students who play college athletics.”
Several sports gambling experts say it makes sense for the NCAA to get ahead of the situation since legalized sports gambling at the amateur level is inevitable.
Jake Williams, general counsel for the U.S. branch of Sportradar, a European sports data and integrity company, said less than 1 percent of the 400,000 matches the company covers are deemed to have suspicious betting or likely to be fixed.
Still, he acknowledged how susceptible college athletes are.
To alleviate problems, Williams suggested the NCAA and its member schools beef up corruption and integrity units and invest in education and monitoring.
“To ignore and not educate those types of athletes is going to be problematic in the long run,” he said. “I hope the conferences, the schools and the NCAA understand the scope and breadth of what’s required and actively participate in making sure they’re doing everything they can to protect their athletes.”
In addition to research for the NBA and other pro leagues, Williams’ company also serves as a consultant for SportsLine, a division of CBS Sports. He said he has done oversight for the NCAA, Big 12 and three other college athletic conferences he did not name.
He explained the use of algorithms and formulas to monitor point spreads that could raise flags.
White said he knows it doesn’t take much for a college player to veer off the wrong path.
“If they do it once, that’s it. They’re done,” he said. “They’re going to do it forever. [The bookies will] never let them out of it. That’s what the kids don’t understand.”
Then there’s the matter of sports betting on campus.
A 2016 NCAA study of nearly 23,000 student-athletes found 55 percent of men reported gambling for money, and 24 percent reported violating NCAA bylaws by wagering on sports for money.
Eleven percent of Division I football players and 5 percent of men’s basketball players reported betting on a college game in their sport (not involving their team).
“If colleges truly did not want gambling, they would lobby to make all gambling lines on college sports illegal,” said David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University. “It has to be an either-or, not just, ‘Hey it’s illegal, we know it is going on and, man, we make a ton of cash but we can look the other way.’”
Ridpath spent seven years in athletic compliance at Marshall University and Weber State University. He described gambling safeguards in place at the time as whack-a-mole.
He said schools used in-person education, newsletters, emails and specific educational moments during high potential gambling times, such as March Madness.
Purdue Athletic Director Mike Bobinski said the school already discusses gambling and point shaving with student-athletes, but he said they’ll have to be more diligent, comprehensive and intentional moving forward in order to protect integrity.
“Once you lose that, you’re shot,” Bobinski said. “If people don’t trust that what’s happening in front of them is legit … you can’t get away with it.”
For those concerned with integrity, Sara Slane, senior vice president of public affairs at the American Gaming Association, argued the more transparent and regulated a sports betting system is, the better equipped a league, in this case, the NCAA, will be in detecting when something goes awry.
West Virginia’s legal sports betting regulations will allow wagers on in-state programs — unlike Delaware, New Jersey and New Jersey, which prohibit bets on any in-state college teams, including notable programs like Rutgers University, Seton Hall and Princeton University.
Regulations passed June 21 in Mississippi detailed no such restrictions, meaning the public will soon be able to walk into a Mississippi casino and bet on Mississippi State University or the University of Mississippi.
The increased activity will put more of an emphasis on information, including injuries and suspensions, in order for oddsmakers to accurately set betting lines.
That’s why Tim Otteman, a former gambler and now assistant professor at Central Michigan University, said athletic administrators all the way down to students who are around the team on a daily basis should be educated properly.
“The person I would go to [as a bookie] is the athletic trainer and student manager,” said Otteman, who researched gambling tendencies. “That’s how I’m going to find out who’s hurt, who’s not, who has a boyfriend/girlfriend problem, who has a credit problem, how they are doing in school. Those people know everything.”
To help combat any possible insider trading, the Southeastern Conference mentioned at its May league meetings the possibility of league-wide injury reports, similar to the NFL, to help with integrity.
The Atlantic Coast Conference implemented an injury report policy for several years before discontinuing it for the 2017 season.
White even suggested legal sports books could pay the NCAA for streamlined information, doubling as an additional revenue source and a way to cut down on fixes.
But there are obvious obstacles, Williams said. The NCAA doesn’t have a players’ union like the NFL or NBA to negotiate on their behalf.
Then there’s the federal health information privacy law.
“It’s healthy for the market but from a legal perspective, there has to be a balance,” Williams said. “You don’t want a lot of sensitive information … being released without consent, or at least an understanding of that, or a proper framework around that. That obviously is a concern at the collegiate level.”
Sean Isabella covers Big 12 athletics for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.