Any Wagering Not a Safe Bet

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.2, February 2006,

Though he coaches in a state and city known for its casinos, University of Nevada at Reno Head Baseball Coach Gary Powers says his players aren’t very different from counterparts across the country when it comes to sports wagering: Opportunities to get involved, legal or illegal, are everywhere. And like student-athletes everywhere, Wolfpack baseball players get a stark reminder that, unlike other students, they can’t join in on pools on NCAA basketball tournaments or any other form of wagering on sports.

“When it gets to the bowl games, March Madness, or Super Bowl weekend, they can’t be like a lot of students around campus and get caught up in the excitement,” Powers says. “We constantly remind them about that. They know the rules they have to follow to be an intercollegiate athlete. They understand their opportunity to play is a heck of a lot more important.”

That message is one the NCAA is trying to get across more strongly. Prompted by an anonymous survey of 21,000 student-athletes in all three divisions that found that 34.6 percent of male student-athletes engaged in some type of sports wagering in the past year, the NCAA Sports Wagering Task Force has begun stepping up its anti-gambling efforts.

Most alarmingly, the survey found 1.4 percent of student-athletes said they or someone they knew had been asked to affect the outcome of a game. One percent said they knew of a teammate who did so. The numbers are small but suggest the problem isn’t solved, even though the penalties for involvement with organized gambling are very serious. Gambling on one’s institution can be punished by permanent loss of all eligibility, and for any organized gambling on pro or college sports, the punishment is a one-year suspension. The same penalties can apply to giving information to gamblers.

The NCAA says it’s more closely monitoring legal betting in Nevada—some recent point-shaving scandals were uncovered after legal book makers notified authorities of an unusual number of bets on college games. The NCAA is also having the contractor who checks the backgrounds of officials working NCAA basketball tournaments also check on baseball-tournament umpires. That’s because the College World Series can be wagered on in legal sports books in Nevada, says Rachel Newman-Baker, NCAA Director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities. Newman-Baker wouldn’t say whether any officials have been disqualified.

Thus far, though, the anti-wagering campaign has focused on educating student-athletes on gambling’s dangers. A Web site on the subject is targeted for launch in time for this year’s basketball tournaments, Newman-Baker says.

A key educational piece is the “Don’t Bet On It” anti-wagering brochure distributed to most teams. It includes testimonials from student-athletes describing how they started with small bets with a fellow student acting as a bookie, ran up debts, and ended up thrown out of college sports after being caught throwing games or shaving points. The key point is that even seemingly innocent bets can spiral out of control, leading to debts that grow until the only apparent way out is to agree to shave points or fix a game. In the brochure, Stevin “Hedake” Smith, a former basketball player at Arizona State University prosecuted for shaving points in the 1990’s, describes how much it hurts when friends in the pick-up games he plays in now often make jokes when he misses a shot. They say he must be fixing the game.

But coaches have a major role, too. When asked what keeps them from betting on sports, student-athletes in the survey first listed their own personal values and the threat of stiffer punishment. But after that, the major influence was coaches, Newman-Baker says.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to provide education about sports wagering to our student-athletes,” Newman-Baker adds. “This education includes not just explaining the rule and telling the student-athletes not to do it—but also explaining why it is important that they don’t as well as what consequences can occur if they are involved in such activity. Coaches definitely play a vital role in the process, but so do athletic directors, athletics administrators, other student-athletes, and national office staff.”

There are signs the NCAA’s anti-gambling education helps. Survey respondents in Division I reported less sports wagering than in Divisions II and III, and, NCAA officials suggested, that’s because anti-gambling efforts so far have focused on the highest-profile division, where contests are more likely to be the subject of wagering.

About two-thirds of male student-athletes reported taking part in any form of gambling in Divisions I and II and more than three-quarters in Division III. These included playing cards, betting on games of skill, buying lottery tickets, and betting on sports. Only about half of females reported the same.

As for betting on collegiate sports, about 17 percent of student-athletes in Division I, 21 percent in Division II, and just less than 25 percent in Division III said they had. About 22 percent of baseball players across all divisions said they’d wagered on college sports, behind golf, lacrosse, wrestling, and football. The survey’s good news was that comparatively few student-athletes seem to be problem gamblers—only about 5 percent of males (and half of one-percent of females), based on activities they said they’d engaged in because of gambling or how it makes them feel.

In Reno, Powers says the casinos beckon but aren’t part of most people’s lives, student-athletes included. If there is an advantage to living there, it’s that the downside of gambling is close at hand. “It doesn’t take people very long to figure out that you don’t make money in those places,” he says.