Last weekend, venerable news show 60 Minutes produced a segment about the spread of sports betting across America. Unfortunately, the program used the subject to highlight fears about sports betting’s corruptive potential.
60 Minutes used the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, or March Madness, as the pretense for its feature. This year’s edition of March Madness betting is the first to feature widespread sports betting across the land.
The direction the program’s reporting would take was evident from its introduction. Correspondent Jon Wertheim managed to invoke the 1919 Black Sox scandal in the first minute of the broadcast, citing the event’s coincidental 100th anniversary as a counterpoint to the sports betting diaspora occurring in 2019.
Unpaid college athletes are the targets of most worries
Of course, the Black Sox episode occurred in a time that athletes received far less pay. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the 1919 Chicago White Sox had a team salary of only $88,461, or roughly $2.26 million in 2019 dollars.
By contrast, the average MLB payroll in 2019 is more than $133 million. Most other professional sports in the US have similarly large budgets for salary.
So, as 60 Minutes mentions, the risk for corruption at the professional level is much lower these days. The worry, instead, revolves around unpaid college athletes.
Wertheim’s main interviewee was Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick. Hamrick, who came to the West Virginia University after a stint at UNLV, seemed quite uncomfortable with the rivers of money that now flow around his school’s events.
“There’s people that will do what they need to do to make a buck at the expense of an 18- or 19-year-old kid,” said Hamrick.
He stressed the need to monitor his players more intently in the wake of sports betting’s legalization, stating that he employs people specifically to that end. He also related that other athletic directors across the country share his concern.
NBA Commissioner provides the counterargument
Somewhat shockingly, Wertheim managed to find the counterpoint to Hamrick in NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver, perhaps hearkening to Louis Brandeis, indicated that sports betting’s new legality would actually reduce corruption.
“I think it decreases risk dramatically because we have access to the betting information, Silver said. “I think when you have an underground business operating in the shadows, you have no idea what people are betting on your own events.”
Silver’s statements are particularly surprising given that he was one of the chief creators of the notion of integrity fees. However, neither Silver nor Wertheim mentioned integrity fees as a way to add a layer of security.
Wertheim’s chosen angle for his report is clear, though, when he gives the final statement to Hamrick. Hamrick cites a litany of actions that he’s taking to ensure his players are not becoming involved with gambling figures.
Of course, nobody suggests an obvious solution — that the NCAA allows athletes to draw salaries. Instead, figures like Hamrick are consigned to clamp down, wring their hands, and hope for the best.