Gambling on College Sports

As a former university president, my reading of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Murphy v. NCAA left me feeling rather sad. I’m willing to wager … oops … bad choice of words … that major college sports will never be the same.

In an admittedly overly simplified nutshell, what the Supreme Court ruled is that the federal government could not “commandeer” state governments to prohibit gambling on college sports. That means—at least for the time being—that states keen on permitting such gambling are now free to do so.

Some might view this as harmless. After all, what’s the crime in allowing a bunch of spectators to add some spice to this Saturday’s football game between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers or even a Wednesday night hoops contest between the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils?

The problem happens late in the evening on Monday night. That’s when King Big Fish—he’s the overaged guy known for flashing rolls of $100-dollar bills at the local student hangout—manages to catch the team’s star freshman quarterback, Monster Passer, alone in the men’s room. He tells Monster that he can make an easy thousand dollars—lots of money to an 18-year-old from the wrong side of the tracks—if he will just keep the game close; maybe throw an incomplete pass or two if the game is becoming too lopsided. He assures Monster that no one will ever know.

Imagining what he can do with $1,000, Monster agrees. And, sure enough, the game is closer than the betting folks thought it would be. So, Monster is delighted when he finds an unmarked envelope filled with ten $100-dollar bills slid under the door of his residence hall room on Sunday morning. No harm to the team. No harm to anyone. Just easy money.

King Big Fish, being an expert on human nature, steers clear of Monster for a week or two, allowing him to roll up some record-breaking statistics. But then, just when the national media are beginning to take notice, he senses that the timing is right.

It’s the week of the big rivalry game. Lots of money will be riding on the outcome of this contest, and King Big Fish is betting the house. He stands to win over a million dollars if Monster’s heavily-favored team loses the game. So, this time, when he meets with Monster Passer, he’s willing to promise much more—a cool $10,000 if Monster is willing to throw the game; not just throw an incomplete pass or two, but actually fumble the ball or throw enough key interceptions to ensure a loss.  

When Monster replies that he doesn’t want to hurt his team, King Big Fish has an ace up his sleeve. He tells Monster that he recorded their previous conversation in the men’s room, and that he will expose Monster to the NCAA as a crooked player—thus ending his football career forever—if he refuses to agree to this week’s plan.

Monster is too upset and confused to know what to do. He realizes, in part, that his career may be doomed no matter which choice he makes. But in the end, he decides to play along, thinking his coaches, and any NFL scouts who might be watching, would probably forgive a single “off game,” chalking it up to freshman nerves.

Now, multiply that story by the number of King Big Fishes in college towns all across the United States, who often happen to be frustrated athletes who secretly hate the players who are accomplishing the goals that eluded them (the big fishes) in their younger years.

Think they don’t exist? Think it won’t happen? I’d say, think again.

My fear is that we will only hear about the occasional bust, or sting, when a college player is caught betting against his or her own team’s performance.  We’ll never hear about the clever schemes—the ones handled by organized crime, where more than a few thousand dollars can be offered to just the right players, those who know they have no future in the NFL, but whose timely mistakes can nevertheless spell the difference between a team reaching a point spread or not.

One could argue that all the money in college sports was bound to lead us to this place. I confess that the Spirited Reasoner has no thoughtful response to that argument.