Gambling in College Sports

Two or three years ago I remember channel surfing, and finally stopping on FX. I do not think I had ever done that before that day because this was before The Shield or Nip/Tuck was on television. A movie showcasing some bad basketball scenes caught my eye, so I stopped for a few short seconds to see what this was, maybe it would be the Hank Gathers Story. I quickly realized it was a made for TV movie on the exploits of a student bookie from Arizona State, Bennie Silva.

The basic story line was Silva as a small time student bookie collecting ten to twenty dollar bets from his friends and classmates. One of Bennie's was a star player on the Arizona State basketball team whose name is escaping me. One day, he walked in on Benny counting the thousands of dollars in cash Benny had collected from those placing bets with him. He asked Benny in a joking manner how he could make that money. In the movie and then later corroborated by Silva and the player, their eyes hit, and they both knew what the other was thinking: point shaving. The player did not want to throw games, and since at the time Arizona State was one of the better teams in the Pac Ten, they were often times favored in games, so he thought nothing of winning by two less than the point spread. He and Benny did end up going through with the point shaving, and it became one of the biggest gambling scandals in college sports.

Luckily, that has been the last scandal of its sort since in college athletics, but fans, players, and college administrators all fear one thing in college sports: gambling ruining the integrity of the game.

Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA released the results of the National Study on Collegiate Sports Wagering and Associated Health Risks. The study showed that 1.1% of football players have reported taking money for playing poorly in games. Other numbers reported included 2.3% of football players admitting to being asked to influence the outcome of a game due to their gambling debts, with 1.4% of football players acknowledging to altering their performance in an effort to change the outcome of the game. While these numbers may seem low to some, they are shockingly high and play out to about one player on every college team, so if you play out by the numbers there was one player on Illinois' football team that has admitted to taking money to alter the outcome of a game. When you see that 35% of all college athletes have admitted to participating in a gambling related activity, be it as small as an NCAA pool or providing injury information to a friend for no money, it become obvious how widespread gambling is on college campuses with the student athletes.

The study reported the Division I college athlete is the least likely to wager money on college sports, while the Division III athlete is the most likely to place a wager. In a statement to the press, NCAA President Myles Brand said "the scope of sports wagering among intercollegiate student-athletes is startling and disturbing. Sports wagering is a double threat because it harms the well being of student athletes and the integrity of college sports." In an effort to look into the problems of gambling on college campuses and with the student athletes, Myles Brand selected outgoing Notre Dame President Reverend Edward A. Malloy to head a national task force to analyze the results of the survey and develop strategies to counter sports gambling among intercollegiate athletes.

College sports are in a unique situation when it comes to gambling: the participants are approachable, and the easy to bribe. When it comes to attempting to alter the outcome of a college basketball game versus a professional one through point shaving, it would take much more money to buy off a professional athlete. College athletes are in a much different situation. They are not making hundreds of thousands of dollars (at minimum) to play, thus the money it would cost to "purchase" them would be much more reasonable. To show how little money it costs to purchase a college athlete all you have to do is look at the gambling scandal that rocked Northwestern's football team. All it took was $400 to get their running back to fumble on purpose in a game against Penn State. That same $400 would be laughed at by any professional athlete. These players are making millions of dollars, and find $400 in the cushions of their leather couches.

Now, I do know everyone makes bets one way or another on sports. I do not know of one person that has never bet a lunch against someone on any sort of sporting event, and even my grandmother has paid $5 to enter an NCAA Tournament Pool. I also do not want to sit here and say I have never gambled on college sports, because I have done it, and did it as recently as the last NCAA Tournament, but I can say I have never bet on any school sponsored athletic event I have participated in. The bets I have made range from a lunch bet here and there to a few hundred dollars in a Las Vegas sports book. Gambling is every where, but especially college campuses. Gambling has helped increase the popularity of all sports because it gives people something to cheer for in a game they would have no other interest in, all you have to do is see the interest in the events that are Monday Night Football and the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The problem with gambling comes not from the act of gambling on the game, but from when gambling affects the game's outcome, completely ruining the integrity of the game.

Some people may say that if a college athlete gambles on his own team to win the game, he is not hurting anyone, but is that the case? What happens if in that game he bets $100 on his team to win, and he plays his hardest, but the team loses by two. Sure, the outcome of that game was not affected, but now what happens if this happens for ten weeks straight, and his team is 3-7? The player is down $400. As any college student who is not being coached by Tony Harvey knows $400 is more money than you see in a semester. Now let's say the bookie you have been using says he will clear your name from his books if you do him this one favor: shave points in a contest. The problems snowball from there, and this is just one scenario on how gambling on your own team to win can start to hurt people, especially your teammates.

When it comes to sporting events, integrity is all they have. Right now, players fixing games is the only way college sports can lose its entire fan base in one swoop. If fans start thinking the outcome is predetermined, the games would be no more interesting than professional wrestling without the scantily clad women and detailed story lines. Sure, games are entertainment, but part of the entertainment is the enjoyment fans get in watching something happening as they live and die with every momentum shift. If fans knew the games outcome was predetermined, the emotional attachment to the game would be removed because the games themselves would not matter.

With the NCAA creating a task force to look at gambling in college sports, I am drawn back to something I have heard in the past from Myles Brand's arch nemesis, Bobby Knight. Sure, the players and coaches are a key cog in the wheel of altering the outcome of a sporting event. They should be educated about the ills of gambling, and watched like hawks to ensure they are keeping the integrity of the game. But, watching players and coaches closely leaves out a group of key people that can also easily alter the outcome of a game with one swift blow of their whistle, the referees or umpires. If the NCAA is going to truly look into the effects that gambling can have on the integrity of their game, they need to look in details at not just the players and coaches, but also the people blowing the whistles. If the integrity of intercollegiate athletics means as much to Myles Brand as he says it does, this is a key point in his already short tenure as the president of the NCAA. He must handle people that gamble on college sports with an iron fist, not the feather with which he punishes those institutions that break the other NCAA regulations. If he does not deal harshly with those that break the simple rule of not gambling on the games, the games we all know and love would no longer truly be games.

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