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College athletics can’t drop its defenses as sports wagering becomes accepted

Brian Hendrickson


The lectures in the graduate-level journalism class I teach each fall are usually predictable: the 24-hour news cycle, reporting on social media, video as a storytelling tool. They’re well-tilled subjects, so few guest speakers surprise me anymore.

Until Gary Gramling joined us in fall 2018.

A senior editor at’s Monday Morning Quarterback site, Gramling was expected to talk about changes in online reader habits and the media. Then a student asked about his new sports gambling podcast for the website. Suddenly, just four months after a U.S. Supreme Court decision lifted the federal ban on sports wagering, we were discussing the exploding market of gambling insight and how traditional sports media companies — lusting for an edge to draw readers — were eager to get involved.

“It was always there. This isn’t a new thing we’re introducing to people,” Gramling told the class. “With the federal ban being lifted, it put a different connotation on it.”

In other words, within a single offseason, what was viewed by many as a grimy, shadowy industry became an acceptable, if not admired, opportunity. That wasn’t merely surprising — it was an earth-shaking, worldview-shifting moment.

Sure, sports wagering always had been there, as Gramling said. We’ve all heard mentions of favorites and underdogs — arm’s-length references to gambling lines used to give context to matchups with nary a nod to their sources. But sports wagering is here now as a very real, very legal, very accepted — and, to college sports, very problematic — activity, as Champion’s Brian Burnsed explains in his story “Doubling Down.” And the college sports world must be careful not to let down its defenses just because it woke one morning to find these activities had a brighter, cleaner face.

Legality only has increased many of the challenges long associated with gambling that were at least kept at bay by its stigma.

As Burnsed points out, the issues raised by sharing player availability data ­­could be difficult to manage with rules changes alone. A committee commissioned by the NCAA Board of Governors is already exploring the topic. Their conversations are sure to cover some challenging ground — of privacy concerns, of the desire of outside influencers to gain valuable insider information, and how each might be managed to ensure student-athletes can continue competing in a protected environment. 

What about problem gambling among a competitive population like student-athletes? NCAA research shows those groups already gambled when the activity was illegal in most states and banned by the NCAA. What happens when those activities become easily accessible, culturally accepted and virtually impossible to monitor? How will schools protect themselves from integrity issues, as legality potentially increases threats like point shaving? Or having coaches and staff members bribed to gain insider information?

These questions aren’t limited to Division I or basketball and football either: Every division and many other sports can expect to be affected.

This also isn’t an alarmist viewpoint. It’s informed from experiences overseas, in countries where sports wagering has been legal for decades, as Burnsed describes.

The issue is coming at us fast. As of publication, 16 states and the District of Columbia have given their nod to legal sports wagering. The shield of stigma is gone.

The question now is, will college sports be ready?

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.