Second in a series
Editor’s note: In this three-part series, the Courier looks at some of the pros and cons of legalized sports betting in Iowa and why it’s a concern for college athletic programs.
CEDAR FALLS — Generally speaking, the legalization of sports wagering in Iowa will heighten awareness, but it won’t change much for the state’s NCAA athletic programs.
NCAA surveys show that 55 percent of male student-athletes and 39 percent of female athletes reported gambling from 2004 to 2016, but typically not the kind that can bring down a college program. They are far more likely to play poker or slots at a casino, get into fantasy leagues or participate in pools, some of which is prohibited and some of which is not.
However, that survey also indicated that in 2016, roughly 25 percent of the male student-athletes reported wagering on sports. NCAA rules strictly prohibit betting on amateur, collegiate and professional sports in which the organization conducts a championship. That applies to all three NCAA divisions and to everyone from the student-athletes and coaches to administrators, office staff, athletics staff and even faculty representatives.
It’s never been much of an issue for the athletic programs at Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Iowa, Wartburg and Upper Iowa and most coaches and administrators don’t expect it to become a program beginning Aug. 15 when sports betting begins in Iowa casinos.
“I don’t know that it really changes anything within our program,” said UNI head football coach Mark Farley. “It does magnify the emphasis we put on sports betting and making sure our players and staff are aware of the repercussions. It’s always been something we take very seriously.
“I think it’s about the education of your players and the amount you emphasize it. You have to keep coming back to the message to make sure.”
Ben Messerli, UNI’s head of NCAA compliance, speaks with athletes in all the Panther programs on a yearly basis about the subject. From there, it’s up to the individual programs to decide how much more they deliver the message.
“We’ve got to continue to do the job we’re doing and probably do even more in terms of communication with our players because (sports betting) is more available now, not just to the players necessarily, but to people around our players,” added UNI men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobson.
Historically, college athletics haven’t experienced many gambling-related scandals, at least by comparison to issues like academic fraud, illicit recruiting tactics and payments to players.
In 1951, 35 then active and former college players were accused of fixing at least 86 basketball games and Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky program was barred from play for a season. Twenty players and 14 gamblers were indicted and convicted. In 1985, five Tulane players were accused of shaving points in a scandal that shut down the program for four seasons. In 1995, two Northwestern basketball players were given brief prison sentences for their role in fixing games. During the 1978-79 season, Boston College hoopster Rick Kuhn got involved with a mob figure to fix games and ended up with a 10-year prison sentence.
Then there’s the story of Connie Hawkins, a New York prep superstar who was recruited by Iowa only to be sent packing before ever suiting up for the Hawkeye varsity after he testified in the 1961 point-shaving scandal involving Columbia University’s Jack Molinas. Hawkins wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, he just hung with the wrong crowd. He turned pro and became the MVP of the American Basketball League and a Harlem Globetrotter, but was banned from the NBA draft. Hawkins sued the NBA in 1969 and the case was settled for $1 million and a brief NBA career.
It typically takes multiple players to influence the outcome of a college basketball or football game, although individual players could affect prop bets like who will score the first touchdown in a game or how many 3-pointers a particular player might have in the first half of a basketball game.
Iowa will be unique in that regard. While you can make prop bets on individual performances in Las Vegas, it will be prohibited in Iowa.
“There can still be prop wagering on Iowa colleges, just not on the individual performances of athletes,” said Brian Ohorilko, administrator for the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.
“You could have prop bets with regard to the team totals, the total number of rebounds within a game. But you couldn’t make a wager on if Michael Jacobson (Iowa State basketball) will make so many free throws. That would be prohibited.”
On the other hand, it is possible for a wide range of individuals associated with a collegiate program to provide inside information. It might be something as seemingly innocuous as an athletic trainer mentioning an injury to a fan, or a student manager telling a friend about an undisclosed suspension. Social media has expanded the platform for the distribution of the type of information that might be valuable to gamblers.
The NCAA surveys show that student-athletes are occasionally asked to influence the outcome of a game, although that number has declined. In 2004, the number of male student-athletes who reported that they had been asked to influence the outcome was 2.4 percent in basketball and 2.3 percent in football. By 2016, those numbers had declined to 0.6 and 1.6 percent, respectively.
The report also shows that in 2016 3.4 percent of male student-athletes were asked for inside basketball information and 2.2 percent for privileged info on college football teams.
So, while it doesn’t happen often, the fact is it could happen.
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Ultimately, that may change the way individual programs release information and conduct practices.
It could mean more details about injuries or suspensions being made public earlier to prevent leaks, although the NCAA has determined it won’t put a standardized system in place for the 2019-20 seasons.
“I think we will all learn as we go forward because of the knowledge that can be gained leading into game day,” said Farley. “There may be more stringent rules in what you need to tell people injury wise at the very beginning.”
Of course there are two sides to that issue, too, including in some cases a student-athlete’s right to privacy.
“There are some things that need to be kept between the student-athlete, the trainer and the coach,” noted Jacobson. “Some of those things aren’t for anybody else’s information, having nothing to do with gambling.
“That doesn’t mean we’re withholding information for any reason. There will still be things that our staff knows or our trainers know or our players know that isn’t going to be public information.
“That’s where education comes in. No matter who asks them, no matter how good a friend they are, they can’t give them an answer to those kinds of questions.”
There may come a day when all programs close the doors to their practices. Some already have, but others allow media members and/or fans to watch their teams work out.
“I could certainly see that,” said Jacobson. “Like a game-day shootaround, you’ve typically got TV folks in there who are going to be doing the game and are trying to see a little bit of what’s going on to get up to speed. They’re in the gym and they see a guy with ice on his ankle. Now they have inside information, whether they use it or not.
“I could see where you have to close the doors so there’s not anybody else who would have that information. One thing this has done is added another step and a bigger opportunity because there are going to be more people involved in sports gambling than there ever were before.”
Ultimately, Jacobson said the public discussion of sports betting can be beneficial.
“It may in a lot of ways help everybody because it’s going to get talked about so much now,” he noted. “Our players are going to see it. The conversation is going to be public and in some ways that may help with the education piece and help our guys understand it and what’s happening around them. I think there will be some positives in it getting so much attention and I think it will help guys understand the magnitude of what we’re talking about.”
In the meantime, coaches and administrators will continue to share the message.
“We’re going to do everything we can to educate and make sure we don’t end up in a difficult situation to the best of our ability,” Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta told the Quad City Times during the Big Ten kickoff.
“Sports betting illegally has been around for decades. We’re doubling down, pun intended, on education. Right now, we have to make sure that our student-athletes are reminded of the ways that gambling can intervene in your life.
“Really what we are setting out to do is trying to control what we can control. We want to do the best we can to put the information out there so individuals can avoid putting themselves in a potentially bad situation.”
That’s a consistent theme throughout Iowa’s NCAA athletic departments.
“Being a coach at UNI, I can’t believe that it would happen at UNI, but I’m also not naive enough to believe it can’t happen,” said Farley. “It is something we have to be aware of and police and educate not just our players but our staff, trainers, equipment people, managers, media relations ...
“Hopefully you build a program that has a culture that polices itself, but you’d better be aware that it can happen to anybody, anywhere.”
Tomorrow: Sports betting can be an enjoyable activity, but it can also become an addictive behavior that can ruin lives.