Gambling, college sports and the mafia: what does legalized gambling mean for college athletics?

Betting has a love-hate relationship with sports leagues, and no one’s sure how that will affect college athletics

Gambling, college sports and the mafia: what does legalized gambling mean for college athletics?

You might have been disappointed in 2021 if you were a fan of the American University men’s basketball team. The Eagles went 4-6, played six fewer regular-season games than initially scheduled and were bounced out of the Patriot League Tournament in the quarterfinal round. 

Adding to the frustration, standout guard Jamir Harris announced he was transferring out of the program and heading to Seton Hall. However, if you bet on the Eagles, you’d be indifferent toward their performance this season.

The Eagles finished 2021 covering the spread and hitting the over 50 percent of the time, according to the online sports betting website Scores and Odds. While AU is not known for its school spirit, people did bet on AU men’s basketball during 2021. 

AU School of Public Affairs senior Max P. Lempert is one such person. Lempert, who’s from Pennsylvania, said he started gambling on AU games because he roots for the Eagles.

Lempert said that he likes to bet on sports for fun and uses the service DraftKings to do so. He guesses that at least 20 AU students bet on the games, and due to a perceived lack of school spirit around sports, betting makes the games seem more meaningful.

“It builds school spirit,” Lempert said. “AU puts absolutely nothing into its sports, and for people like me and my friends who care about sports, betting on it makes it a little interesting and gives us a stake.”

This is a rather new phenomenon — until recently, Americans in every state outside of Nevada were prohibited from betting on games, as the federal government banned sports betting in 1992.

But the Supreme Court struck down the federal law barring sports betting in 2018 and now states can choose whether they wish to legalize it. D.C legalized sports betting in 2018, and 25 states have legalized the practice since the Supreme Court decision.

Sports betting is a very profitable industry. American sports betting generated nearly $400 million in 2020, major sports leagues have signed deals with gambling companies and media outlets, like Fox, have made gambling a major part of their branding.

However, sports betting also poses ethical dilemmas, and fixing scandals connected to gambling have rocked multiple sports since the start of the 20th century. The most famous case came in 1919 when eight Chicago White Sox baseball players allegedly fixed the World Series and were banned from the sport for life. Sports like horse racing, soccer and mixed martial arts have been plagued by fixing scandals throughout the last century, and college athletics are no less immune to the conflict.

Unlike in professional sports, student-athletes are not paid for their services and cannot profit off their names or brands. College athletics has a sordid history with players and coaches taking part in fixing.

In 1981, five members of the Boston College men’s basketball team were convicted for fixing games at the behest of New York mobster Jimmy Burke. Burke would later inspire a character played by Robert De Niro in the Martin Scorsese film “Goodfellas.”

In 2009, six former University of Toledo football and basketball players were charged for conspiracy of sports bribery. In 2011, a former University of San Diego student-athlete and an assistant coach were charged with fixing a basketball game in 2010. In 2013, a former Auburn University basketball player was indicted for alleged point-shaving, but he avoided jail time.

The NCAA bars players from betting on sports, professional or collegiate, but an NCAA- commissioned study in 2012 found that 26 percent of male athletes and 5 percent of female athletes broke the rule and bet money on sports. The study did not clarify whether it was their own games or general competition. 

Efforts to fix games haven’t stopped, despite 41 states either legalizing or considering legislation to legalize gambling.

In 2019, an associate with the Colombo crime family, one of the “five families” of organized crime in New York, was indicted for attempting to fix a college basketball game. While the court didn’t find games were tampered with, legalized gambling has caused concern in some familiar with collegiate athletics.

One of those people is Donald Markus. Markus is an adjunct professor at American University and was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun for over 30 years where he covered collegiate and professional sports. 

Markus covered the Big East conference for Newsday when the Boston College fixing scandal broke, and generally refrains from sports betting. While Markus said it is an unwritten rule that journalists cannot bet on the games they cover, he also said that he saw many fellow journalists gambling on games they were covering during his career.

“I covered the Preakness many years, and there’s a betting window in the press box,” Markus said. “I found it interesting that really esteemed horseracing reporters bet, but that was part of the lifestyle, and I didn’t understand how you could bet on horses, on jockeys, and ultimately trainers with total impartiality.”

Markus said paying college athletes could deter some players from fixing games, but he is still worried that players will participate in scenes to undermine games.

“Depending on where the players are and betting being so easy, I would not be surprised if we see college basketball or football players being influenced by gamblers to participate in influencing the game,” he said.

Markus is not alone in his concern. Match-fixing experts like University of New Haven professor Declan Hill argue that sports where players are underpaid and leagues that are viewed as corrupt by the general public breed an environment that makes fixing more likely.

However, not everyone is concerned about a potential moral hazard. N. Jeremi Duru is a professor at the Washington College of Law and is an expert in sports law. Duru sits on the Anti-Doping Review Board for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports.

Duru said that he believes more states will legalize gambling in the coming years and that people still bet on sports when it was outlawed. Despite some negatives, Duru said that legalization is a good thing, and the Supreme Court’s decision removed the incentive to fix games.

“You are bringing what would otherwise be underground out from the shadows and subjecting it to regulation, which I think overall will be a net positive thing,” Duru said. “A lot of people offer a con that if you allow sports gambling you’ll have a situation where the integrity of the game is affected, but I think that is much more likely when gambling is underground as opposed to above ground.”

The question now is will fixing ever affect AU. For his part, Lempert isn’t concerned.

“AU doesn’t have a big gambling culture,” Lempert said. “I don’t think anybody can make money betting on Patriot League basketball.”

bmorse@theeagleonline.com

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