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Two More College Athletic Departments Swept Into Online Gambling Troubles

The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission is investigating 26 current student-athletes at the University of Iowa for sports betting, and released a report to Iowa on May 4 listing individuals associated with the Hawkeyes athletic department who, according to the school, "participated in sports wagering." The school says it has alerted the NCAA and "hired outside counsel to assist in the investigative process." Some of the active student-athletes appear to be members of the baseball team: Over the weekend, at least four Hawkeyes players—two catchers, a pitcher, and a designated hitter, per The Daily Iowan—were suspended from a series against Ohio State "due to a potential NCAA violation."

NCAA rules explicitly prohibit "participation in sports wagering activities," including giving information to sports bettors, on any sport played at any level, due mainly to concerns over "the integrity of sports contests." The head of gaming for the Iowa commission conducting the investigation, a man named Brian Ohorilko, told ESPN Monday that they aren't looking at any potential match-fixing or suspicious wagering activity, which raises the question of why this sports betting is being investigated by a state governmental body at all. But a timeline provided by the University of Iowa website says the school was notified on May 2 of "potential criminal conduct related to sports wagering that also suggested possible NCAA violations," and noted that the list of names came by way of law enforcement.

In possibly related news, another public Iowa university, Iowa State, released a statement Monday acknowledging "online sports wagering allegations involving 15 of our active student athletes." The state board of regents, which oversees Iowa's three public universities, said Monday that it is "aware of concerns related to online gambling" in the two athletic departments and is "closely monitoring the situation."

So the situation is awfully hazy. Iowa makes a point of highlighting that "the vast majority" of names on the list are not current student-athletes, and are mostly student-staff, or former student-athletes, or "those with no connection to UI Athletics." But you'd be right to wonder why law enforcement would provide UI the names of bettors "with no connection to UI Athletics," and in particular if, as Ohorilko says, the commission hasn't found "anything giving us pause or leading us to believe that any of these markets were compromised." The Daily Iowan also notes that, unlike in the case of the recent gambling scandal involving the Crimson Tide baseball team, no states have yet stopped bets on Iowa baseball games.

This might be a case of an excessively harsh crackdown on student-athletes engaged in the increasingly normal behavior of betting on sports, inspired by the somewhat dicier situation in Alabama, where there appear to be legitimate concerns over the integrity of at least one actual contest. In retrospect, it seems obvious that regulators were always going to run into these sorts of thorny enforcement issues as sports gambling is normalized and online betting rises to consume all of North American spectator sports. College kids like to gamble. A fact sheet from the National Council on Problem Gambling says that 75 percent of college students have placed some sort of wager in the past year, whether legally or illegally, and that at least 30 percent of male college athletes bet on sports. Compared to the general population, a much higher percentage of college students engage in online gambling, and studies show that online gambling is associated with "substantially higher rates of problem and pathological gambling." The explosion into the mainstream of online sports books and gambling apps has made the lure of compulsive wagering that much harder to resist.

And the messaging to students and student-athletes from the people in charge isn't quite as clear as the NCAA's whole wagering demeans competition and competitors alike thing. The New York Times reported in 2022 that at least eight college athletic departments have joined official partnerships with online sports-betting companies, and at least a dozen others have "signed agreements with brick-and-mortar casinos." The University of Colorado Boulder gets $30 from an online sports-betting company each time someone downloads the company's gambling app and uses the school's promo code to place a bet. LSU blasted out a promotion to its student population after entering into an agreement with Caesars Sportsbook, offering $300 in free bets to anyone who placed a $20 bet using the school's promo code. Michigan State has enormous banner ads inside Spartan Stadium, urging fans to download a gambling app, and, per the Times, Caesars and MSU discussed a deal where gamblers could get free merch from the team store for placing $50 wagers. For college kids at a growing number of NCAA member institutions, the sports-gambling marketing blitz isn't just on the television; it's on the very walls of their facilities and pushed in emails they're receiving from their own damn schools.

So, ah, there's a lot to be ironed out still where it comes to legalized sports-betting, college athletics, and college athletes. If the NCAA and state agencies are prepared to crack down on student-athletes who can't resist the constant blaring solicitations of gambling outfits, and the terrifying ease of use of sports gambling apps, they've got their greasy hands full.

CORRECTION May 10: As The Athletic reported Sunday, most if not all of these partnerships have been terminated since the American Gaming Association updated its Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering to explicitly prohibit partnerships with colleges:

On March 28, the American Gaming Association updated its Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering to prohibit college partnerships (outside of alumni groups or responsible gambling awareness initiatives) and prohibit NIL deals for college athletes, among other changes. The code is a collection of guidelines, not binding rules.

The next day, PointsBet and Colorado announced the end of their partnership, though the Boulder Daily Camera reported the decision was not impacted by the AGA code update. A Maryland spokesperson confirmed to The Athletic its PointsBet partnership has also ended; a Maryland state law prohibiting such partnerships has been sent to the governor’s desk. A Michigan State spokesperson told The Athletic its Caesars partnership was inactivated in early April, removing signage and promotion, and the process to officially end it is underway. Caesars also recently took down its signage at LSU. The school did not respond to a request for comment on whether that deal is officially ending as well.

The Athletic
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