A recent college baseball betting scandal at the University of Alabama understandably drew significant attention from sports fans and media outlets, as the story raised questions about the entire college sports industry.
Alabama’s head coach, Brad Bohannon, communicated with someone at the same time they placed a large bet on the Crimson Tide to lose to LSU. Bohannon was swiftly out of a job. Just a few days later, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University held student-athletes out of competition as the state investigated potential sports wagering violations.
No criminal charges have been filed in either situation, and regulators have been clear that they don’t believe any Iowa or Iowa State athletic events were compromised, suggesting the athletes may have just violated NCAA rules concerning wagering on other sports.
Despite the Iowa and Iowa State situations seeming somewhat tame compared to the Alabama scandal, media outlets across the country began to refer to the NCAA betting situations as a “scandal” and “just the tip of the iceberg.”
.@RJ_Writes breaks down everything you need to know about the latest ongoing investigation involving Iowa and Iowa State https://t.co/kLoBjSwCfB
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 9, 2023
Coverage from local outlets and national publications suggest the NCAA is in for a long few weeks and months. Essentially, some reporters have said we should all expect suspensions to roll in as more institutions investigate sports betting activity within their athletic departments.
But let’s pump the brakes on the doomsday scenarios, at least for the moment.
Citing a 2016 study is flawed
An NCAA survey cited regularly by media outlets reported that 24% of male athletes said they placed a sports bet in the last year. This data is being used by some reporters to make the logical assumption that a quarter of current male student-athletes are at risk for being suspended by the NCAA at any moment for violating the association’s rules on sports betting.
In the words of college football legend Lee Corso: Not so fast! The survey was from 2016, meaning that it’s seven years old — and outdated.
Some argue that since PASPA was overturned in 2018 and legal mobile sports betting has spread across the U.S., it means that 24% number is likely much higher in 2023. That might be true, but it’s also a flawed assumption that lacks important context.
And this was when it was still illegal and much harder to do in almost every state! https://t.co/lTvRD9Fge6
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) May 8, 2023
The 2016 survey includes an executive summary with some overlooked details. While 24% of male student-athletes reported placing a sports bet in the last year, the survey determined that “most student-athlete sports betting occurs among friends, family, and teammates.”
The survey also found that “most of the gambling and sports wagering behaviors of student-athletes involve low stakes.” Only 21% of male respondents ever reported losing more than $50 in a day. The largest one-day loss for more than 33% of male bettors was less than $10.
Findings from the 2016 survey suggest that much of the wagering reported was student-athletes placing small sports bets with their friends. The wagering activity could be as benign as entering a March Madness bracket pool with family members that included a $5 entry fee. The horror!
When reporters say nearly 25% of male student-athletes wagered on sports betting “last year” without any context, it’s easy for a reader to assume male athletes were placing legal mobile sports bets in 2022 and the activity was undetected by the regulated market. That’s doing a disservice to readers, as the NCAA survey occurred years before PASPA was repealed, and much of the wagering occurred between friends and involved minuscule sums of money.
The same small wagers between friends cited in the 2016 survey are likely still happening in 2023, and it’s all but impossible to eradicate that activity. Fortunately, small bets between friends aren’t alarming to most level-headed people. Those wagers also won’t ever draw the same national media coverage as the Iowa and Iowa State situations because they won’t be detected. And if they were, “Player X bets his roommate $10 on Super Bowl outcome” isn’t a very punchy headline.
Ohio State’s quarterback betting $10 in cash with a teammate who plays wide receiver isn’t going to reach a regulator, and the rest of us will be blissfully unaware of that activity as we watch the duo connect for 50-yard touchdowns in Big Ten play. That type of activity has been going on for years, and it doesn’t jeopardize competitive integrity.
Frankly, the NCAA should be more worried about conference realignment — the Big Ten and SEC could grow so large they decide to break away from the NCAA — than small wagers between pals.
Regulation has positive impacts
Widespread legalization means increased regulation. And with increased regulation comes enhanced data-tracking, which means many student-athletes are aware that if they sign up for a mobile sports betting account, it will be monitored.
In fact, the regulated market played a role in helping identify the suspicious activity involving Alabama’s Bohannon.
“While details are still coming out, events like this are indicators that the guardrails of the legal, regulated marketplace are working,” Cait DeBaun, the American Gaming Association’s vice president of strategic communications and responsibility, told Sports Handle. “Legal sportsbooks have robust compliance programs to actively monitor for anomalies and work with regulators and law enforcement to investigate any concerning activity. This only exists in the legal market. Competition integrity is central to the success of the sports betting ecosystem and is a top priority for both sportsbooks and leagues.”
For some student-athletes, sports betting regulation may act as a deterrent to breaking NCAA rules, knowing their online wagering habits can be tracked more closely in 2023 than in 2016.
A new NCAA study would provide better insights into the current state of affairs, answering important modern-day betting questions. How many student-athletes report using illegal mobile sportsbooks? How many student-athletes have accounts with regulated sportsbooks? Have they ever broken NCAA rules when betting on a regulated sportsbook? Does knowing the regulated market exists deter any athletes from wagering?
Without that present-day information, we simply don’t know the true extent of sports wagering among current student-athletes. Citing an out-of-context statistic from a 2016 survey to draw conclusions about NCAA wagering in 2023 doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the dialogue.
The NCAA plans to gather updated data on sports gambling trends in the coming years, and that survey may be a useful talking point when it’s released.
“President Charlie Baker has initiated a market research study to quickly gather data on gambling behaviors of individuals between 18-22 years old with a focus on those pursuing higher education,” an NCAA spokesperson told Sports Handle. “We have also initiated our quadrennial sports wagering survey analyzing trends among student-athletes. Data collection for this survey will conclude in 2024.”
Iowa, Iowa State serve as examples
It’s likely that some student-athletes across the country have placed mobile sports bets that violate NCAA rules without any of us knowing. Given the sheer volume of student-athletes — there are more than 75,000 in Division I alone — some have surely overlooked NCAA rules and placed bets on the NFL or other major professional sports leagues without being flagged by regulators.
At the same time, numerous media outlets saying that the Iowa and Iowa State situations are “the tip of the iceberg” feels short-sighted and alarmist. An Iowa baseball player over the age of 21 wagering $15 on an NFL game shouldn’t constitute a scandal, and public NCAA suspensions for such activity will serve as an educational tool for other universities and athletes.
No one should be surprised that gambling entities are infiltrating college sports.
They were given the green light by the NCAA, major conferences, and member institutions. The situation in Iowa is likely just the tip of the iceberg. https://t.co/Hi5m8cF7fE
— Orange and Blue News (@IllinoisRivals) May 9, 2023
Virginia Tech linebacker Alan Tisdale missed six games of the 2022 season for betting on the NBA Finals. Do you think Tisdale’s teammates and other college athletic programs across the country made sure to emphasize the NCAA’s wagering rules after a team leader missed half a season? I’d bet on it.
Players missing time due to wagering violations will only further disincentivize others from betting. It’s one thing to hear an administrator tell you not to gamble, it’s another to watch as your peers get suspended for placing a few bets with a mobile sportsbook.
On that note, athletic departments may ramp up educational efforts over the next academic year. That would be a welcome addition to the current college sports landscape, as younger people (especially young men) are an at-risk group for problem gambling issues.
Maybe the Iowa and Iowa State situations will lead to dozens of other colleges self-reporting betting violations among players this spring and summer. If so, it’ll lead to mass hysteria from media outlets unfamiliar with the gambling industry and the NCAA’s strict gambling rules, which some argue are the real issue here.
Realistically, however, even if other NCAA wagering violations come to light in the next few months, the Iowa and Iowa State situations will scare student-athletes away from future wagering of any kind. College athletes are seeing how easy it is to get caught for breaking NCAA betting rules, costing them eligibility and cutting careers short.
Athletes still looking for a gambling fix outside mobile sports betting can visit a casino or play poker or wager on non-NCAA sponsored sports like auto racing, all of which are allowed by NCAA rules. They may even do what student-athletes did in 2016, which was wager $5 among friends on the outcome of the Super Bowl or a March Madness game.
Yes, a college baseball player entering a $5 March Madness bracket pool counts as a sports wagering violation under NCAA rules. But if that’s the iceberg, it’s not sinking the NCAA.