The NCAA chose Charlie Baker as its next president because of his political connections and his experience as a politician. Recently, Baker put on display the skill of answering a question without actually answering it.
Baker gave an interview to USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz on a number of topics, sports betting among them, on Thursday. On that subject, Baker offered up a word salad that would make anyone political campaign manager happy.
Baker talks about amorphous “opportunity” for NCAA
In Berkowitz’s summary of the conversation with Baker, sports betting comes up. Baker didn’t ignore the issue.
“That’s a major opportunity, right in front of us. We have a major opportunity to get into the sports betting space and recognize and understand between social media and 31 states legalizing it and anybody who has a phone being able to bet from any place they want and two-thirds to almost three quarters of all people between the ages of 18 and 22 betting on sports there a chance to do something about that.
The truth is, if there are a lot of kids on campus betting on college sports and betting on the teams on their campus, this puts student-athletes in a very difficult position. … (The NCAA needs to) create a program that we hope we’re going to get everybody to endorse around helping them develop the tools and techniques (athletes are) going to need to deal with this stuff.”
Berkowitz either didn’t press Baker to clarify what “major opportunity” actually means in his view or that bit of the conversation didn’t make it into Berkowitz’s write-up. Either way, there isn’t a lot to glean from what Baker said in terms of actual significance.
There are reasons for the lack of clarity.
Why Baker couldn’t actually say anything meaningful
Despite it probably being true, Baker can’t come out and say, “we’d like to make some money off the sports wagering that we know is happening on our sporting events but we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.” That’s because the NCAA has on this issue like many others painted itself into a corner.
Ironically, the NCAA is partially responsible for the explosion of legalized sports betting in the United States. It was the lead plaintiff in the Murphy v. NCAA lawsuit that prompted the US Supreme Court to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018. It was that ruling that cleared the way for states to expand their legal gambling options to include sports wagering.
Since then, the NCAA has doubled down on its public characterization of sports wagering as a shrouded figure emerging from a dark alley waiting to pounce upon passers-by. It filed for a trademark for its “Don’t Bet On It” public awareness campaign in 2020. That messaging discourages betting on the NCAA’s annual March Madness tournaments.
As Baker did manage to mention amid mixing his word salad, the NCAA could devote its resources to educating athletes on sports wagering. The fact that hasn’t happened yet, despite PASPA falling five years ago, is another sign that the association would rather pretend the wagering isn’t happening because adjusting to the cultural shift would feel like endorsing it.
Baker understands that he was brought in for one purpose; to save the NCAA from its past failures by securing an antitrust exemption from Congress. Making statements about potential revenue streams from sports betting could put him in hot water with some college presidents, who ultimately hold the NCAA’s fate in their hands.
Baker was also reading the room in terms of recent related events involving NCAA-member institutions.
Lower level events dictated Baker’s comments as well
The fact is that some NCAA-member institutions have collected revenue from gambling companies. The athletic conferences they belong to have done so as well. Such deals are increasingly become less rather than more common, though.
For example, Caesars just discontinued its sponsorships of athletics at LSU and Michigan State. Critics raised concerns about the impact of such promotions on people who are too young to gamble. The impact of such deals on athletes was a concern as well.
Also, recent situations involving collegiate baseball programs and betting on them have put the issue into the public consciousness. For all these reasons, Baker had little choice but to keep his comments vague. It might be some time before he could go into more detail, too.