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The NCAA’s Gambling Surveys Aren’t About Gambling

Written By Derek Helling on June 2, 2023
basketball players gather during practice as the ncaa conducts gambling surveys

The NCAA’s recent survey about gambling behavior among young adults is essentially worthless for revealing any useful information about that activity. However, for the NCAA, that doesn’t matter. That survey and the forthcoming one focusing on gambling among athletes were never intended to provide such data.

The format of the survey and the circumstances surrounding it point to an inescapable conclusion; the NCAA was looking for data to support the full-court press it is putting on the U.S. Congress for antitrust protection. It’s part of the NCAA’s fight to protect its chattel economy.

NCAA survey about gambling included a wide scope

The Opinion Diagnostics survey for the NCAA of more than 1,700 individuals between ages 18 and 22 didn’t reveal anything ground-breaking. The biggest takeaway according to the poll was that such people like to participate in gambling or at least gambling-adjacent activities.

The result that the NCAA touted, that “58% of respondents have participated in at least one sports betting activity,” needs a lot of context to accurately understand. It isn’t as simple as that sentence seems.

What the survey defined as a “sports betting activity” is extremely broad. Anyone who has put a few bucks on the line on a season-long fantasy league with friends, bet on a horse race or taken part in an office March Madness pool qualifies. It’s important to point out that the question asked if the respondents had ever done so in their lives, even just once.

Under those conditions, the only surprise is that the 58% stat wasn’t higher. The survey painted with the broadest of brushes in this regard. That was absolutely deliberate. The reason for that framing is quite obvious, too.

Common misconceptions about regulation of major college sports

In order to understand why the NCAA is taking efforts like this gambling survey, it’s important to correctly comprehend who regulates major college sports and how that happens. There are many common misconceptions.

The NCAA is technically the national governing body for sports for its member institutions. It sets standards around athlete eligibility and other matters necessary to conduct sports. However, people tend to think that means the NCAA has “agents” on the thousands of campuses constantly policing those rules.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the various member institutions are responsible for policing themselves. While the NCAA might write the rule books, the thousands of colleges and universities are really accountable not to the NCAA but to each other for abiding by those rules.

The NCAA only exists to facilitate those institutions holding each other accountable. The NCAA itself has no force of law behind it. It has zero authority to enforce any standards except that which its members collectively delegate to it.

For that reason, the NCAA is ultimately beholding to college presidents. Should those people ever en masse decide the organization no longer serves their interests, it would simply cease to exist. That situation is not currently as far-fetched as NCAA staff would like it to be.

The NCAA’s economic model is under threat

To comprehend what’s going on in major college athletics, it’s essential to understand how the economics of that industry have evolved. In short, things have not been going well for the NCAA’s model of “amateurism for thee, money for me.”

A major decision in that scope was the Supreme Court’s ruling in Alston v. NCAA. In that ruling, the court laid out that the NCAA has no authority to penalize its member institutions if they compensate athletes for their academic performances. At the same time, several individual states have also enacted laws that limit the powers of the NCAA to regulate its members.

Since then, the NCAA has been seeking an exemption to federal antitrust laws from Congress. Dr. Katie Lever, who studied sports policy to obtain her doctorate from the University of Texas, explains how the NCAA’s very survival is under threat.

“The NCAA has been after an antitrust exemption for years as protection since their authority and legitimacy have been called into question,” Lever stated. “Their activity with Congress and emphasis on a ‘national standard’ for college sports policy is only necessary now because the NCAA has failed to implement common sense policy in the past and is unhappy with the states stepping in with their own NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rules. The solution here is very simple: implement smart policy that adequately protects and advocates for college athletes and there doesn’t need to be any outside influence. The funny aspect of all of this is that five years ago, the NCAA could have implemented very conservative NIL rules and the college sports industry would have sang their praises for taking the lead in modifying their very oppressive and outdated policies. Many say that the states forced the NCAA’s hand when it comes to NIL, but I see it the other way around: the NCAA’s refusal to budge on NIL forced the states to make moves against the NCAA that would benefit their economies. Had the NCAA taken the initiative sooner, they wouldn’t need an antitrust exemption to hold onto power because they probably would have gained trust with people by lifting their NIL restrictions just a bit. But they doubled down instead and here we are.”

Essentially, the NCAA wants Congress to give it some authority beyond what its members have voluntarily handed over and can revoke at any time. If it is unable to secure that, colleges and universities could find that the NCAA serves no purpose.

So, what does that have to do with the gambling survey? It’s part of the sales pitch to Congress. That’s also a reason to doubt the legitimacy of the forthcoming athlete gambling survey.

The gambling surveys are part of the Congressional lobbying effort

The NCAA is painting a picture of grotesque figures emerging from dark alleys to push old ladies down staircases and kidnap babies. The NCAA wants to craft a narrative for members of Congress that without a strong national governing body, collegiate sports will be a cesspool of illegal, immoral activity.

Showing a member of Congress that 58% of people 18-22 in the US have taken part in sports betting activities plays right into that narrative. Lever spoke about her experiences with research conducted for the NCAA.

“The NCAA also has a tendency to find what it needs in its internal reports,” Lever commented. “This is really evident if we look at its ‘overhaul’ of its constitution where it was reported that many college athletes prefer the term ‘student athlete’ in spite of its negative history. That may very well be true but some follow-up questions should be: were the athletes informed of the problematic history of the term (probably not), and what were the demographics of that sample? The NCAA regularly churns out reports with very little background information about the athletes involved and that’s always a red flag for me.”

Lever also drew upon her own experience as a college athlete at an NCAA-member institution to discuss whether the results of the forthcoming athlete-only survey will be reliable.

“Collegiate athletics can also breed a culture of surveillance that I would guess impacts the answers to surveys,” Lever added. “For example, when I was a college athlete, I was very scared of providing any survey information to the NCAA because I was very aware that I was constantly being watched as a college athlete, whether that was on social media, being publicly weighed in weight rooms, or in the way my coaches would hound me for information about my injuries and relationships (and often not believe my answers). That climate of surveillance can be very damaging and impact the frequency with which you answer surveys as well as the honesty of your answers.”

Furthermore, there is one huge tell that these surveys have little to do with assessing the impact of sports betting on collegiate sports. The NCAA has to date not announced any intent to survey other people connected to those sports. To adequately get a look at that impact, similar surveys of athletic directors, coaches, equipment managers, sports information staff, and trainers regarding their gambling habits would be necessary.

That’s completely unnecessary when your only objective is to paint athletes as potential delinquents who will run amuck without a strong thumb for them to be under, though. That’s all these surveys are truly about.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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