The Supreme Court will soon rule on Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, a case that will effectively determine whether or not sports gambling is illegal on a federal level. If New Jersey (Christie) wins, states across the country will be free to write their own laws and regulations regarding legalized sports gambling.
The NCAA, for its part, has fought the move by New Jersey to legalize sports betting, saying on its website, “The NCAA opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering, which has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student-athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community.”
The NCAA’s stated position makes a certain amount of sense. Throwing games, playing to meet betting lines, and other behaviors that affected game outcomes for gambling gains in decades past happened either due to the bribery of low-paid or unpaid athletes, or blackmail, generally by organized crime. In that light, the NCAA probably has more to fear from widespread sports betting than any professional sports league, since its players have the most to gain (or the least to lose) from throwing games or shaving points.
If that’s the case, however, it’s due to the NCAA’s insistence that athletes remain unpaid amateurs, combined with their inability to meet the needs of its student-athletes who do more work in the university’s name than almost any other students (especially the football and basketball players who make the most money for their schools and would be the most likely targets). Furthermore, in football and men’s college basketball especially, improper gifts and benefits sway athletes to choose one school over another all the time. The NCAA’s own ecology already undermines the competitive balance of the sport in a way that gambling could hardly hope to match.
The most likely downside to widespread legalized sports gambling is more societal in nature. Casinos are often derided as a tax on the poor, and as Mississippi State Rep. Roun McNeal said, studies show that “people on the lower end of the economic spectrum are the ones who spend most of their money on lottery tickets, on sports gambling.” In other words, while states will legalize betting to increase business and tax revenue, the most serious downside will likely involve whether or not the money of the poor disproportionately ends up in the states’ coffers. The NCAA should pay attention to the potential for legalized gambling to affect the integrity of its sports, but it also has the ability to reduce the chances of players finding it worth the risk to shave points or throw games, should they feel their integrity concerns are substantial enough.