Opinion: Lighten Penalties For Athletes Breaking Pro, College Sports Betting Rules

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college sports betting

We have arrived at the start of college football season (pause for applause) and there is undoubtedly going to be some bad news coming on sports betting.

Maybe I will be wrong and whatever took place involving college athletes in Iowa, a now-former coach at Alabama, and coaches at Cincinnati were nothing more than isolated incidents.

After all, we were sure in 2020 that Josh Shaw was an isolated incident that everyone would learn from and that would never happen again. Then, we were really sure after Calvin Ridley was suspended that NFL players would never make the same lapse in judgment again.

Perhaps I am a pessimist, but we are likely to see a number of additional issues surrounding both professional and college athletes and league gambling rules.

Response from NCAA after college sports betting probes

The NCAA, for its part, just revealed new guidelines for violators of the organization’s gambling policies. I do not have a great inside source telling me that more issues are coming, but given what we have seen, it seems inevitable that we are at the tip of the iceberg. Before we reach bowl season or the NFL playoffs, it seems we will be talking about the games that were impacted by suspended players.

As the past few scandals broke, some who covered the gambling industry argued that this is not about athletes not receiving enough training. That is a statement I vehemently disagree with.

We can debate whether it is reasonable or not for an NFL player to know that they cannot bet on a team bus on a game in a different sport, or for a college student to know several hundred pages of the NCAA rulebook based off a 20-minute presentation in the midst of summer practice. Regardless of whether lack of education is a problem, there is a question about what to do with violators.

NCAA creates new guidelines

On June 28, the NCAA dropped changes to reinstatement guidelines for sports wagering violations.

They create three categories of violations:

  1. Those who effectively match-fix, or “influence the outcomes of their own games or knowingly provide information to individuals involved in sports betting activities,” face a potential permanent ban, as well as possible criminal penalties beyond the NCAA.
  2. Those who bet on the sport they play but not involving their team would see athletes lose 50% eligibility for one season and could be reinstated following completion of the penalty and completing an education program.
  3. This is where it gets a bit weird, and seemingly arbitrary:
  • For all other wagering-related violations (e.g., wagering on professional sports), cumulative dollar value of the wagers will be taken into consideration with the following terms for reinstatement:
    • $200 or less: sports wagering rules and prevention education.
    • $201-$500: loss of 10% of a season of eligibility, plus rules and prevention education.
    • $501-$800: loss of 20% of a season of eligibility, plus rules and prevention education.
    • Greater than $800: loss of 30% of a season of eligibility, plus rules and prevention education.

We are not in 2017 anymore

Back before the demise of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), sports leagues and the NCAA could pretty easily point to the widespread illegality of gambling and the aversion to having anything to do with Nevada, and say that if you break league rules on gambling, you are a serious violator worthy of significant punishment.

Again, the validity of that argument could probably be the subject of a fair debate, particularly after sports leagues jumped into the daily fantasy sports pool and became partial owners of companies.

When gambling was largely unregulated, there was at least a colorable argument that those players violating league policy should be dealt with harshly, as there was in many cases a criminal element taking place that leagues feared could undermine the integrity of games. The Alex Karras, Paul Hornung, and Art Schlicter suspensions were justifiable. Times have changed.

Growing pains in new era

The regulated sports gambling market is growing. It is only a 5-year-old. Mistakes have been made.

The question is, can we emerge from the mistakes and move forward with as little damage to stakeholders as possible? It is likely not lost on anyone that if there is a fixed game, there is a pretty solid chance this whole universe looks a lot different. It will undoubtedly send shockwaves through the industry and people will lose jobs, and no one on either side wants that.

Keeping in mind that a fixed game has the potential to devastate the industry, what I am suggesting may be surprising: I think players need to be given lighter punishments for violations of league (and NCAA) gambling policies.

Some caveats on college sports betting

There are going to be a lot of violations of these policies in the coming months. I do not have proof, and I do not have someone in my ear, but I just have a feeling that we are going to be hearing about violations, especially in college a lot in the coming months.

The NCAA could throw the book at these athletes. It could ruin these athletes’ lives if it wanted and could end the athletic careers of college athletes for violating gambling rules.

There is no union in college sports to support an athlete if they are slapped with a draconian punishment. In the past, the baseline punishment was a one-year suspension and a lost year of eligibility, with few exceptions that spell the end of most athletes’ college careers. Teams do not keep many players around for a year if they violated gambling rules.

Still better than the past in college sports betting

These new rules are an improvement over what existed before this, with the significant caveat that this view is premised on the basis that the violations do not involve any type of match-fixing or manipulation.

I think that the NCAA should consider giving players who violate the organization’s gambling policy a suspension pending completion of remedial education, whether that is 10 or 20 hours, but something manageable that does not result in players being suspended for an entire season.

Lose the arbitrary dollar amounts. Second offenses or subsequent offenses can move back toward the current status quo, as my current focus is on not branding first-time offenders for life over what is fundamentally a mistake.

College athletics is still supposed to be about education. While there is a fair argument that ship is sailing or already left the dock, the NCAA has the opportunity to take a very progressive step and help college athletes move past a single mistake in sports betting.

How about in the pros?

Similarly with the NFL, despite letting the cat out of the bag with the one-year suspensions and six-game suspensions for wagering violations involving non-NFL games, it is likely time to reconsider at least the non-NFL betting.

A six-game suspension is a significant punishment for an activity that, at least on team property, the team has some ability to control through blocking websites and is somewhat arbitrary in nature.

Again, I think a shift towards some community service-based education would go farther and be more impactful than a six-game suspension.

How we move forward is important

You can choose to believe the survey that found many NFL players were not aware of the league’s policies regarding where they can place bets. You may choose to believe that college athletes should know every rule in the rulebook.

The reality is some do not, or some may know and think they will not get caught for breaking them. The fact is that we are not in 1995 anymore. The leagues and NCAA are gaining from legal sports betting; those Big Ten and SEC TV deals are likely a lot smaller without the increased interest from bettors.

Times have changed, it is time for punishments to change, at least temporarily while we work to establish new norms. Players who place bets on sports they are not involved in should not be branded for the rest of their athletic careers when they are placing bets at regulated books advertising to them everywhere they look.