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The problem with college betting


If I were a betting man looking for a sure thing, I’d probably wager that our men’s lacrosse team wins the Ivy League again. If I wanted a bit of an underdog, I’d take a good hard look at our men’s soccer squad — no, seriously, they’re going to be really good this year. And in 2019, it just might be legal to wager on Ivy League games.

Over the summer, the Supreme Court struck down the federal law that had previously almost entirely banned sports betting across the nation. Shortly thereafter, several states set up legal betting. Just this Sunday, dozens of New York Giants fans placed their wagers, walked across the street and took their seats in the Meadowlands — which is in New Jersey, not New York, but I digress. For professional athletes, legalized betting probably doesn’t have much of an effect. But for fans and college athletes, the impact of sports betting is potentially far greater.

For many, betting on games is more than just about making money. It is about finding a way to become more invested in the game. Even if it’s $5 or $10, the monetary aspect adds an element of intrigue to the game. It’s a way to find yourself on the edge of your seat while you’re watching the Denver Nuggets take on the Los Angeles Clippers in the 43rd game of the year.

But I often wonder if that sort of defeats the purpose. Take fantasy football as a counterpoint. To some extent, when a Philadelphian like me ends up rooting for Saquon Barkley to score a touchdown, fantasy has blinded us to one of the best aspects of sports: our loyalty to a team as opposed to individuals. But, in another respect, it magnifies the best aspect of sport: the camaraderie, the competition among peers. Fantasy sports is not about the reward at the end of the season; for most, it is about competing with your friends.

Can betting have a similar, positive impact? I’m not so sure. When one finds oneself rooting for a random team, or a ridiculous prop like the coin toss or whether Bill Belichick will have sleeves on his hoodie, it seems that he is somewhat missing the point. For professional athletes, of course, money is critical. But should it be to the fan? I suppose that depends on what the fan wants. It seems out of line with “the spirit of the game.” But, nevertheless, it can be pretty funny to find yourself or your friends concerned with how many times Peyton Manning shows up in a commercial for a lackluster product.

Yet for college, the situation is different. Because money is critical to pro athletes, they have a shield from the potential abuse of sports betting. That is to say, because professional athletes make money, they are less likely to fall prey to points-shaving schemes and the like. For perspective, in the 1919 world series, “the Black Sox Scandal,” Arnold Rothstein offered a few of the Sox $100,000 to throw the series. That year, the team’s entire combined salary was $88,461. Yet, this year, the White Sox active payroll was $39.15 million, which is actually the seventh smallest (the Giants sit at $221.42 million) in the league. Thus, it would be significantly harder to convince the most important players on a World Series team, who all make upward of $15 million a year, to throw a series for additional money, thereby risking a lifetime ban from the sport.

However, college athletes might be more vulnerable to predatory bookies. One might wonder why a college competition would be fixed. Sure, maybe in the average Ivy League game, the stakes are not high enough for someone to go to the trouble of putting in the fix. But for the FBS National Championship? Nearly 30 million people watched last year. ESPN pays more than $600 million for the rights to the game. Advertisers had to shell out a million for 30 seconds of primetime commercials.

Yet the players make nothing.

Might legalizing gambling increase the chances that an Alabama offensive lineman — who’s now played in three straight national championships — might give the opponent a free shot at the quarterback once or twice on third down? Maybe. Although on draft day it seems like literally every player on Alabama is drafted, plenty of crucial role players for the Tide will never receive a two-comma check for playing football.

Yale, however, won’t compete in any FBS national championships anytime soon … or ever, consider- ing we are not even in that league. And while we might soon return to March Madness, it seems unlikely we will be the target of bookies looking to fix a game.

But how do we feel about perfectly legal betting on our games? Does it go back to the point about finding a way to become more invested? Does a game become especially intriguing if a student bets on his own personal friend or an alum bets on his school? I don’t know. I’m not a betting man.

Kevin Bendesky | [email protected]

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