Former NBA center and U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen has seen his share of scandals. And the recent sports betting infractions involving the University of Alabama baseball team and student-athletes at Iowa and Iowa State are not, in his opinion, scandalous.
“I define a major scandal as broad public outrage,” McMillen (pictured above in the early ‘90s in a Hyatt ballroom) said during a Thursday afternoon panel discussion about the impact of sports betting on college athletics. He added that for something to qualify as a scandal in the college sports realm, it would have to involve “hundreds of schools and hundreds of players.”
That’s pretty much what it will take for Congress to seriously consider any legislation that would establish federal oversight of sports betting, said McMillen, now CEO of the LEAD1 Association, which represents Division 1 athletic directors.
“It requires a crisis for Congress to act,” he said. “Look at the debt ceiling. It takes until the bitter end to get them to do something.”
McMillen’s fellow panelist, Declan Hill, hopes it doesn’t come to that. A former investigative journalist who’s written extensively about the corrupt influences of sports betting, Hill opened his remarks by proclaiming that “the bookmaking industry has sold this country a tidal wave of malarkey.”
“There’s a silent plague of addiction among young athletes,” added Hill, now an associate professor of investigations at the University of New Haven. “What is needed here, as Tom has said, is federal regulation. As Tom said, we’re waiting for that crisis, because no one will move until that inevitable crisis. Around the world, we’re seeing these crises. America is asleep at the wheel.”
Ready or not, let’s ride
While the panel did not include industry representation, it was otherwise well-balanced and featured no calls to outlaw sports betting or gambling on college sports. But Darragh McGee, a former University of Toronto soccer player who now researches the relationship between gambling and sports at the University of Bath, expressed sorrow that “gambling is increasingly essential to [people’s] enjoyment of sport,” calling it “a cultural hijacking that’s increasingly blurring the lines between sports fandom and gambling.”
Drake Group President Andrew Zimbalist, who moderated the discussion, opened by talking about how debt-ridden many major college athletic departments are these days, a dynamic that’s not helped by sponsorship money flowing away from schools and directly toward student-athletes through Name, Image, and Likeness deals.
Some schools have been able to fill some of this budget hole by entering into lucrative partnerships with various sportsbooks, but public sentiment has turned against such arrangements, which are currently in the process of being disbanded en masse. Still, McMillen suggested that some state tax revenue from sports betting should be earmarked for college athletic departments, which are facing an unfunded mandate to deal with the compliance and integrity requirements and human consequences of such wagering.
Bryan Blair, the University of Toledo’s athletic director, said he had concerns about the online harassment of student-athletes by angry bettors, noting that the ensuing mental health crisis on campuses “is real” and that institutions are thus compelled to expend resources to provide adequate response and care.
While Blair said he “welcomes the increased interest [in college athletics] that gambling brings,” he said, “I’m not sure we’re ready for this” and mentioned concerns around official data and injury reports.
“We’re trying to learn. At the same time, the bike’s here — we gotta ride.”
Violation, then salvation
Hill spent a fair amount of time talking about all the match-fixing he’s witnessed, mainly in foreign countries. Tennis, he said, is particularly susceptible to such crookedness, as is pro soccer in countries where players are paid a pittance.
He then talked about how unlikely it would be for an NBA game’s result to be manipulated, namely because the league’s athletes are compensated so handsomely, and cited this rationale for why he supports paying college athletes.
When asked by Zimbalist if a well-regulated market can greatly reduce the amount of match fixing, Hill replied, “Absolutely. Despite my description of a tsunami of malarkey, I’m very much in favor of it being legal and regulated.”
While acknowledging that athletic departments need to do more to educate student-athletes on the ins and outs of sports betting, Blair saw a silver lining in the recent Alabama and Iowa incidents, the former of which was sniffed out in his home state of Ohio.
“On the positive side, as these states legalize gambling, people have gotten caught. We can educate our student-athletes and tell them it’s more complicated than either saying ‘no’ or ‘nobody’s gonna find out.’”