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There is no doubt that Tom McMillen occupies a unique position in the sports betting legalization debate.
He is a former pro basketball player. He was once a Congressional representative and was on Capitol Hill (he’s pictured above right) when the federal ban on single-game wagering — PASPA — was enacted in 1992. Today, he is the head of Lead1, a group that is composed of NCAA Division I athletic directors.
“It’s funny because I was in Congress when we passed PASPA, it was so non-controversial at the time,” McMillen told Legal Sports Report in an interview. The law passed in a voice vote in the House and only five “no” votes in the Senate. “Years later, it’s a wholly different animal.”
For his current role, he’s preparing ADs for the possibility that legal sports wagering could be coming, whether they want it or not. The possibility that the US Supreme Court would strike down the ban via the New Jersey sports betting case looms in the coming months.
“We’ve surveyed them, and we found out that 80 percent of them were not in favor of it,” McMillen said. “We just want to make sure our members are attuned to what’s going on, particularly at the state level.”
We still don’t know the official NCAA position on the possible legalization of sports betting by states around the US.
While we can guess that it is likely still opposed based on previous positions, there hasn’t been any public chatter from the body that oversees collegiate athletics of late. (That differs from the NBA and Major League Baseball, which appear to be lobbying for legal wagering, if legislation matches their lists of demands, including a cut of all wagering they’re calling an “integrity fee.” The NCAA and those two leagues are litigants in the NJ sports betting case.)
Where does McMillen think the NCAA stands?
“I think the NCAA’s position is basically that they’d like to be carved out,” McMillen said, talking about the idea that betting on pro sports would be legal but college sports would not be. “But they’re not going to be involved until there’s a determination at the court level, and then they’ll deal with it.”
One of McMillen’s roles rests in trying to keep ADs abreast of a number of issues, sports gambling included. Sports betting bills are advancing in a variety of states, and his group is keeping tabs on it. He says his members are “very concerned” about the issue. But that won’t stop them from addressing the issue.
“What we don’t want to have is your head in the sand where [PASPA] is overturned and then you’re totally unprepared,” McMillen said. “That’s what we try to do, talking about compliance, talk about integrity issues, what can you do, what could you do if your state goes forward.
“It’s a significant issue. Better to be informed than not informed.”
Sports betting was one of the topics broached at a September meeting of Lead1.
Alluding to the idea of the NBA/MLB’s proposed integrity fee — a one percent tax on all wagers in a state payable to sports leagues — McMillen said ADs also weren’t very amenable to that.
“We even asked the question if higher ed would receive something from (sports betting), how would they feel about it, and it still didn’t change their minds about it,” McMillen said, implying roughly four-fifths of the membership opposed such a proposal.
The fear of expanded sports wagering hits home with colleges in particular. There are have been point-shaving scandals in the past, after all.
“There’s a lot of concern because kids are vulnerable and don’t have a lot of resources, we’ve seen this before, I think that’s the core of the concern,” McMillen said.
But the world is different today. The ability to wager online didn’t exist in 1992, when PASPA was enacted. And the transparency of regulated markets far outstrips what exists in a massive black market for sports betting. Monitoring of regulated markets via sports data firms like Sportradar and Genius Sports provide insight into betting patterns and performance that didn’t use to exist.
Still, colleges are concerned.
“There are costs, no question about that,” McMillen said. “What’s the cost to a university if you have a front-page point-shaving scandal? It’s a very significant cost to the university, and the brand and goodwill, and I think there is risk. How all those risks get managed could be the story of tomorrow.”
There are also monetary costs, McMillen posited. Schools will have to spend more money on compliance and enforcement in a world where wagering is legal.
McMillen said he’s had his group hear from ADs from UNLV and the University of Nevada. Wagering takes place on their games in the legal and regulated Nevada sports betting market already. The schools work with the gaming commission on integrity matters.
While McMillen was in Congress, and as PASPA was being passed, it appears he saw the future pretty clearly.
He wrote a book published in 1992 called Out of Bounds. In it, he foresaw the pivot from the pro sports leagues from anti- to pro-sports betting:
But I wonder how long the sports establishment resists the temptation of gambling revenues. Within the next decade or two, when the sports juggernaut needs new revenues, the sports leagues may well switch sides, banding with the states to push for sports gambling.
Fast forward to today, and we’ve seen the exact scenario he painted come to fruition. Soon, he and the colleges of the US will likely be involved in what happens next in sports betting.