Fans seated anywhere along the first-base line of UNLV’s modest Earl E. Wilson Baseball Stadium are afforded a view of the Las Vegas Strip’s eclectic corridor of casinos: Behind bleachers and palm trees loom the towering Stratosphere spire, the gold-tinted Wynn, the faux-palatial Venetian and Palazzo, the tip of the half-scale Eiffel Tower that peeks over the Paris Hotel’s roofline. At night, the structures blend into a blur of fuchsia and gold light.
That glittering display may be alluring, but it is known to cast shadows — one of which stretches to the athletics venues and offices sitting little more than a mile to the east of the famous facades. While the neighboring casinos are the state’s lifeblood, the UNLV athletics department and its more than 400 student-athletes still are beholden to NCAA rules that prohibit sports wagering. The dynamic has worked for decades — and not by accident. Given the proximity and the heightened potential for malfeasance, the school’s athletics department has long devoted extra resources to sports gambling education to make sure student-athletes and coaches aren’t betting on sports or falling prey to people operating in those shadows. The training aims to prepare them to walk the tightrope between their lives on campus and the titillating one those bright lights portend.
“A lot of individuals just think, ‘Oh, well, it’s just student-athletes,’” says Eric Nepomuceno, UNLV senior associate athletics director for compliance. “You need to train your sports information directors. You need to train and educate your athletic trainers. Anyone who’s tied to or privy to information needs to be educated.”
Nepomuceno arrived in Nevada in May 2018 after a six-year stint at Northeastern. The landscape around him, both the cactuses and casinos, seemed jarringly foreign: Aside from issuing some warnings as the Super Bowl neared every year, education about sports betting wasn’t part of his portfolio during his time in Boston. So as Nepomuceno settled in at UNLV, one of the first calls he made was to the Nevada Gaming Commission. That led to a handful of in-person meetings. They talked about establishing consistent communication, monitoring betting lines for abnormalities, how the industry functions. Working in concert with the school’s International Center for Gaming Regulation, he made sports gambling education — regarding both integrity and addiction — a pillar of compliance education for staff and student-athletes.
Much of the material, which is disseminated throughout the year, focuses on not letting information slip that may give a bettor an edge: An innocuous conversation with a roommate about a sore knee, for instance, could metastasize into a tip that sways betting lines and small fortunes. “The risks have always been there,” says Jennifer Roberts, the associate director of UNLV’s International Center for Gaming Regulation, which furnishes the school’s athletics department with educational resources. “It’s not just some guy in a dark alley trying to give you money.”
In May 2018, just as Nepomuceno was rushing to adapt to his new sports gambling responsibilities, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that would mean every college athletics administrator in America might soon have to do the same. With a 6-3 decision, the court deemed unconstitutional the federal law that barred states from establishing regulated sports wagering markets — the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. If it chooses, any state may now enter the fray, and experts note that sports wagering’s growth is moving at a pace without parallel in the gambling industry. Research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming estimates that, should all 50 states permit sports wagering, the U.S. market could reach a size of 44 million bettors wagering more than $290 billion annually. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia already have authorized sports betting, and eight more have bills pending.
Data from European markets suggests that, in states permitting mobile betting, about 80% of wagers will be made via the devices seemingly tethered to us at all times. The allure of the fuchsia lights in the night sky and the adrenaline rush afforded during afternoons in legal sports books soon could be available through the smartphones in every athlete and coach and staffer’s pocket. Even UNLV, with its long-established procedures and resources relevant to wagering compliance, is laboring to keep pace with technological advances. Monitoring mobile betting, Nepomuceno admits, is “almost impossible.”
All the while, the NCAA has maintained its ban on sports wagering, legal or illegal, for the sake of preserving the integrity of competitions and the welfare of college athletes, who are in an age group vulnerable to developing problem gambling habits. Plus, the Association spent a decade successfully fending off attacks on PASPA in federal courtrooms before the Supreme Court’s monumental decision. “We were hoping that we’d never get to that day,” says Edgar Burch, the NCAA’s Washington, D.C.-based director of government relations. “Then, obviously, it happened. There was a lot of soul-searching.”
Next, the work to catch up to a market that already was barreling forward began: The NCAA Board of Governors last year established an Ad Hoc Committee on Sports Wagering, chaired by Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud. Committee members are evaluating whether relevant NCAA rules need to change, how best to educate athletics departments and student-athletes about compliance and problem gambling, and how to ensure integrity of competitions as the market expands. With new states jumping in seemingly every month, precious little time remains to close the gap.
“When I talk to people in the collegiate sports landscape inside institutions of higher education, I experience a lot of denial — by which I mean people who say gambling on college sports is a bad thing. ‘Get the federal government to pass a statute or the Supreme Court to reverse itself, so that we can go back to where we were,’” Syverud says. “That is not going to happen in the near term. So, I think we all need to get over denial and deal with the world we’re in, rather than the world we used to be in.”
After the Supreme Court decision, a slew of states began considering what regulated sports wagering markets might look like: Some might coordinate them through preexisting entities such as state lotteries or gaming commissions.
But how would regulated markets be any more tempting than what’s already accessible to student-athletes and athletics staff? Already, they can bet with a bookie, among one another or via well-trafficked offshore betting sites such as Bovada or MyBookie. In fact, a 2016 NCAA study found about 24% of male student-athletes engaged in some form of sports wagering, a self-reported figure that researchers feel undersells the true scope of the activity. And about 2% of male student-athletes engaged in problem gambling behaviors.
Industry analysts note, though, that regulated markets tend to be more appealing to a wider swath of customers and estimate they could grow five times larger than the illegal and offshore market that existed before PASPA was struck down. “Why do you go to a legal marijuana store as opposed to just continuing to deal with a drug dealer?” says Chris Grove, Eilers & Krejcik managing director for sports and emerging verticals. “Given the option between two reasonably competitive choices, most people would say, ‘OK, I won’t break the law.’”
And with roughly 30 states poised to have some form of regulated sports betting in place by 2022, and wagering on college football and basketball already accounting for roughly a quarter of the regulated market, NCAA officials are concerned important protections will be forgotten in the race for revenue. In particular, the expansion of mobile betting likely will include in-game wagering and prop bets based on the performance of individual athletes. That might leave them more vulnerable to bribes to throw their individual stats — all without triggering the typical red flags that might be raised should they be asked to influence an entire game’s outcome.
And some worry states and operators won’t set a portion of the new gambling revenue aside to fund treatment programs or ad campaigns to raise awareness about problem gambling. “We’re concerned that legislators are not being thoughtful about putting the appropriate safeguards into place,” Burch says.
Given those reservations, the NCAA and professional sports leagues are lobbying Congress to adopt federal legislation that establishes baseline standards for state markets. Among the options: a minimum age of 21 to register to bet on sports; mandatory information-sharing among operators, law enforcement and sports leagues; or requiring casinos to forbid bets from those involved in athletics by cross-checking gamblers against lists furnished by the NCAA, conferences or professional leagues.
A bipartisan sports betting bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate in December, but it stalled amid the current rancor between the two major political parties. Plus, the notion of a federal law has met tremendous resistance from states that are accustomed to having full oversight over gambling decisions. “All combine to create an environment where federal action seems highly unlikely,” Grove says.
For the past eight years, the NCAA’s sports wagering cases have fallen on the desk of Mark Strothkamp, an associate director of enforcement. The former attorney shakes his head as he recounts some recent transgressions: One nationally ranked wrestler was determined to be the largest bookie on his campus. He lost his eligibility. A women’s basketball assistant coach was caught betting on the men’s basketball team at his school. He lost his job. A baseball player arrived on campus with a sports gambling habit already developed, but the school and community lacked the resources he needed to manage his addiction. He lost $5,000 in one month.
Strothkamp fields severe violations like those and many smaller ones involving student-athletes who may not even realize they have broken a rule. They might have played daily fantasy sports on a popular website, for instance, or made a $25 bet at a legal sports book during a Las Vegas vacation, or participated in a seasonlong fantasy football league with an entry fee. But since PASPA was tossed out, the tenor is changing. “The types of cases that we’re getting are becoming more and more severe,” he says. “It has really ramped up.”
Though Strothkamp is girding for a heavier workload, betting improprieties within college sports are nothing new. The first college point-shaving scandal remains its most widespread: In the early 1950s, 32 men’s basketball players from seven teams shaved points in 86 games. Since then, there have been nine other point-shaving scandals involving 50 athletes across 29 schools.
What has transpired in international tennis this century might be the most vivid example of how bad actors might soon reemerge in college sports. A 2016 BuzzFeed and BBC investigation unveiled match-fixing on a massive scale in international professional tennis, driven by gambling interests in legal markets. Lower-ranked professionals, most of whom were struggling to break even financially and had less to lose than their more heralded — and wealthy — counterparts, were most often the culprits. Plus, at smaller events, relatively unfettered access to athletes made it easier for bettors to pitch match-fixing schemes.
How might a comparable problem emerge in college sports? It likely wouldn’t involve a Duke or Kentucky basketball star bound for the NBA, but one with less to lose and more financial incentive to cheat: perhaps a mid-major basketball player from a family with limited resources or a Division II football player with a mountain of student loan debt. “Just imagine that student-athlete who may not necessarily have those funds, and somebody is offering you $10,000,” says Nicholas Clark, a member of the sports wagering committee and former Coastal Carolina football player. “People so often say, ‘Oh, you can turn that away.’ No, that is hard. That is hard.”
A comprehensive December 2018 report commissioned by the international governing bodies in tennis found the advent of online and live betting exacerbated the problem, providing more opportunities for players to fix matches — even sets or games — without being detected. The report called for enhanced mandatory integrity training for athletes, stronger partnerships with relevant law enforcement entities, and more stringent controls on access to players during events. All are lessons now applicable to schools hosting NCAA championships or high-interest regular-season contests.
To combat fixing, the NCAA has partnered with a company devoted to monitoring hundreds of domestic and international betting lines on any given collegiate contest across an array of sports determined to be high risk. As needed, it also can perform spot-checks on others. Because of contractual stipulations, the company cannot be named publicly, but it is known in the gambling industry as an integrity services provider.
When the partner firm detects abnormalities in a given line — which could happen because large sums are being placed on one end of the bet after a fix quietly has been agreed upon — the company contacts Strothkamp and others at the NCAA. From there, NCAA enforcement can weigh the evidence and contact the schools in question, as well as federal authorities, if needed. After the school is notified, it can deliver a preemptive message to the team that might dissuade a player from carrying out the fix, even if the exact culprit isn’t known. “One way to mitigate the risk is for a coach or administrator to come in and do an educational session right before a game,” Strothkamp says. “‘Look, we are aware that there is a line that’s completely out of whack with all the other lines. There’s some feeling that there may be an issue. If anyone’s approached you …’ So, can you cut it off and stop it from happening?”
Participants are not the only ones who increasingly will be vulnerable. The Tim Donaghy betting scandal that rocked the NBA a decade ago highlights that officials carry immense power to subtly influence a game. Complicating matters, college officials are independent contractors and are not employed by the NCAA. They are subject to regular, exhaustive background checks, but their role as contractors places legal limits on the type and scope of required wagering-specific educational and compliance training.
To monitor the men and women who adjudicate contests, the NCAA’s integrity services partner also will be able to root out patterns of irregularities in games worked by the same official. Additionally, an internal group helmed by NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman is investigating what officiating-related changes may be needed in the new gambling landscape. As the former commissioner of the West Coast Conference, which holds its men’s and women’s basketball championships in Las Vegas, Holzman is accustomed to working at the nexus of college sports and gambling. She and her team have recommended a slew of changes, including establishing a new position at the national office to oversee officiating, which would help streamline the dissemination of vital information and training, including education on sports wagering and what officials should do if they are approached. “If you’re an official and you walk into a casino or you’re in the lobby and someone walks up to you,” she says, “how do you handle that situation?”
Holzman’s group also recommends that the more stringent background check system applied to officials in sports such as basketball, which is designed to root out financial vulnerabilities, be expanded to other sports the NCAA’s new integrity services partner has identified as high risk. Still, even those who, like Donaghy, aren’t in dire financial straits may find reason to nudge point totals and chase riches. “Everybody,” Strothkamp says, “is approachable.”
Among NFL fans, designations like “questionable” and “doubtful” guide agonizing fantasy lineup decisions and sway where millions of dollars of bets might be placed. Those pregame labels and the practice availability reports that precede them every week have grown essential to the experience of consuming — and betting on — professional football. But they exist only because of a collectively bargained agreement between the players and the league.
America’s major pro sports leagues have reached arrangements of varying scope with their players associations regarding public injury-reporting standards. Their intent, particularly in the case of the NFL, is to ensure competitive equity among teams and to provide enough public information regarding player status to make betting lines accurate and, in theory, deter bettors from paying to gain access to otherwise classified injury information that might give them an edge.
With college betting markets poised to explode, should the NCAA create a similar reporting model? It’s the question that has proven to be the knottiest for the sports wagering committee and NCAA staff tasked with interrogating the topic — namely, the tension between gambling and integrity concerns and student-athletes’ privacy.
Plus, the professional leagues have reached no consensus on what constitutes an appropriate level of public information. Their arrangements range from the NFL’s robust program — which includes in-game injury updates, multiple practice availability reports per week and a game-status designation before kickoff — to Major League Baseball’s simple “injured list” designation. “We’ve had some folks say, ‘Just do what the pros are doing,’” says Tom Paskus, the NCAA’s principal research scientist, who has been charged with examining this topic to help inform the committee. “But what the pros are doing is conflicted, and they’re struggling.”
For every reasonable argument for availability or injury reporting, there seems to be a sufficiently strong counter. Transparency might shield athletes, athletic trainers, sports information directors and coaches from those mining for injury information that could inform a bet. But no matter what’s available, won’t those heavily invested in wagering always dig for one more nugget that helps them gain an edge? Coaches might find reporting has competitive benefits because it provides them an accurate portrait of their opponent’s roster in a given week. But how can the veracity of those reports be guaranteed or enforced? Transparency would help reassure the public that the games aren’t being influenced by outsiders. But might it also be considered an endorsement of gambling on college sports, and might it run afoul of federal standards designed to protect student-athletes’ private medical or academic information?
Those dichotomies have manifested in the NCAA membership’s feedback. A September 2018 survey of Division I Football Bowl Subdivision athletics directors by the Lead1 Association found that 53% support implementing a uniform standard of injury reporting, while only 24% oppose it. The two prominent athletic training professional associations stand on opposite ends of the issue. And most of the college athletes whom the NCAA has asked to weigh in on injury reporting have spoken out against it. Even a system as basic as availability reporting — which notes, for instance, whether the star quarterback will be available to play this week, with no reason listed — has drawn skepticism from student-athletes.
At the 2019 NCAA Convention, members from all three divisions’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committees voiced reservations about making such information public. Those concerns were reiterated in a March teleconference with the NCAA Student-Athlete Engagement Committee, comprising college athletes from all divisions.
Clark, the former Coastal Carolina student-athlete who is charged with serving as the student-athletes’ voice during the sports wagering committee’s meetings, also has expressed worry about creating a lasting record that might raise questions that stick with college athletes as they embark on professional careers in or out of sports. Even if the designations were as basic as “available” and “unavailable,” he notes they might prompt unwanted, incessant inquiries from the media or, worse, from a job interviewer years later. “That’s student-athletes’ biggest thing — privacy,” he says. “We’re not professional athletes. Why should I feel obliged to provide this information about myself?”
The committee has sought feedback from NCAA members regarding whether a pilot should be conducted to test the viability of an availability reporting program and whether it could be enforced adequately. If enacted, such an initiative would likely span a handful of sports that generate larger wagering markets and carry more risk.
Ensuring that every coach and athletics program, particularly at the highest levels, delivers unvarnished information would require entirely new mechanisms of compliance and enforcement. Some conferences, including the Atlantic Coast Conference, already have dabbled with comparable systems — to mixed results. The ACC abandoned its injury report in 2018. “There are some coaches who had a bad experience with it and believe that they’re giving a competitive edge by disclosing this information,” Syverud says. “Unless there’s some meaningful enforcement mechanism, they’re reluctant to share their information unless they’re confident that everybody else is going to do it honestly and in the same way. So, I’ve heard skepticism about the ability to enforce whatever rules are adopted.”
Since the Supreme Court’s PASPA decision, sports media companies have invested more in once-fringe sports gambling content because it can cultivate an audience like few other topics. The Action Network, a gambling-centric media company that launched in the months before the Supreme Court decision, has built a popular website with a subscription service and forged partnerships with the likes of ESPN and SiriusXM. In September 2018, Fox Sports 1 launched a daily sports wagering show, helmed by a handful of well-known sports media personalities.
Such moves by prominent media brands highlight how sports gambling has been almost completely destigmatized, particularly among the coveted young adult male demographic that these shows are designed to target. “There’s something about sports gambling that it’s viewed culturally and politically as a different thing than a slot machine or a craps table,” Grove, the market researcher, notes.
Though it is a popular pastime, industry experts say that among those who bet on sports regularly, only about 1% actually profit. And while sports wagering, like any other publicly glamorized vice, can be enjoyed in moderation, a sliver of the population is at risk for the dalliance to devolve into something dangerous. It’s an issue that campuses across the country undoubtedly will have to reckon with soon. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, the issue tends to manifest in about 2% of the population, but as barriers to access lift, media coverage intensifies and social acceptance codifies, the group’s executive director, Keith Whyte, expects that percentage to tick up.
The rise will be particularly steep if most states continue to avoid devoting a portion of their new tax revenues to education, prevention and treatment programs, he says. The council has lobbied states that are legalizing sports wagering to allocate 1% of all tax dollars related to the new endeavor to create programs that might help stem the inevitable problems. Most have not, which eventually is bound to place a strain on public health systems with inadequate funding. “It is definitely an oversight and one that will certainly come back up again,” says Brett Abarbanel, UNLV International Gaming Institute director of research. “It’s not something where you overlook it and then everything’s fine in perpetuity.”
A glimpse across the pond might best indicate what’s on the horizon. Abarbanel notes that sports wagering became such a ubiquitous part of the sports landscape in the United Kingdom, leading to a spike in problem gambling issues among younger fans, that regulators have had to intervene to limit the amount of betting ads that can air during soccer matches and how much betting advertising can appear on stadium signage, among a litany of other recent restrictions. As betting operators seek a share of the lucrative — and relatively untapped — U.S. market and an influx of advertising dollars pour in without any preemptive measures from regulators, comparable issues may start to surface. The biggest jumps in problem gambling in the United Kingdom have come among 18- to 24-year-old males. “We expect to see the same thing in the United States,” Whyte says.
Most state governments seem ill-prepared to handle a surge in problem gambling, but so, it seems, are many universities. Jeff Derevensky, director of the McGill University International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviours in Montreal, has spent a career researching the subject: He notes most campuses are not equipped to handle the surge of gambling issues that are sure to accompany sports wagering’s rapid expansion. Specifically, he points to mental health professionals at schools, who may be well versed in treating substance abuse but often have insufficient training and resources for problem gambling. And without adequate expertise on campus, administrators and practitioners tend to underestimate the proportion of problem gamblers among the student body. “You can’t smell it on someone’s breath,” Derevensky says.
In hopes of helping campuses catch up, the NCAA and its Sport Science Institute held a summit in March to delve into the nuances of expanding betting markets and problem gambling in anticipation of developing a resource guide for schools in the near future. Among other relevant information, it will be designed to give coaches and administrators a picture of how to spot the signs of someone with a gambling problem and how to identify appropriate intervention and treatment programs.
Studies have routinely found that those who go on to become gambling addicts tend to start in their teens or earlier. And most college athletes arrive on campus already having placed wagers: According to the NCAA’s most recent sports wagering study, 88% of male student-athletes and 69% of female student-athletes had gambled for money in high school or before.
Lesa Densmore was one such athlete. The 1993 Maine graduate and former field hockey player already was hooked when she arrived on campus: Poker around the family kitchen table progressed to bingo in college, then casinos. By the time she sought help at 37, she had lost her home and her once-thriving fitness training business. Eventually, she attempted suicide. During her time at a residential treatment center, she learned that she had framed gambling as a continuation of her lifelong need to compete and that athletes have a higher propensity for problems.
That is why she has devoted a new career to helping others avoid the traps that ensnared her. She now works as an addiction coach and consultant, which entails regular speaking engagements on campuses. She relays her story in an effort to connect with athletes and impart upon them that the adrenaline surge that accompanies a win or the need to atone for a defeat can have dark downsides. In her speaking tours, Densmore says student-athletes and coaches are receptive to her message because of her gripping personal story, but she has found their understanding of sports wagering — its scope and its potential pitfalls — lacking. She worries they are ill-suited for a world that changed so suddenly last year.
“It’s like the Band-Aid got ripped off and everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s just chase the money, but let’s forget about everything else. Let’s not talk about problem gambling. Let’s not talk about the risks that athletes take now.’ Game integrity, sports corruption — none of that was considered,” she says.
“We are so far behind.”