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Steve Friess: Pro Leagues Can Learn From NCAA’s Smart New Sports Gambling Penalties

Written By Steve Friess | Updated:
Steve Friess State of Play Did NCAA get something right

The NCAA’s Division I rules committee is out this week with a new framework for how it penalizes student-athletes who commit gambling violations.

I’m shocked to say this, but for the most part the new rules make a ton of sense. They are reasonable, compassionate and nuanced. The NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB should take some notes.

Student-athletes who bet on their own games, are involved in any efforts to influence the outcome of their games or provide inside information to people who bet on their sport can still face a permanent loss of eligibility. That seems obvious.

Players who bet on games not involving their own school but in their own sport could lose up to a half-season of eligibility and must take some class (I guess?) on the dangers of gambling. Yeah, OK.

And then — and this is just wild in that it makes absolutely perfect sense — the NCAA has a whole rubric for what happens if a student-athlete bets on pro sports.

  • Those who bet a cumulative $200 or less must take that class on gambling.
  • Those who bet between $201 to $500 maight lose 10% of a season — plus take the class.
  • Betting between $501 to $800 and you might lose 30% of a season and the class.
  • Above the $800 risks permanent ineligibility, but it’s not automatic.

It’s almost as if the league remembered these are young people who came to them both to play sports and to get an education. Imagine that!

Why the NCAA made the rule changes

Evidently, it took the Alan Tinsdale debacle to force the NCAA to come up with something new and reasonable concerning sports betting. Last summer, the Virginia Tech linebacker voluntarily confessed to having placed about $400 in bets on the NBA Finals via FanDuel. He was 21 at the time and did so in Virginia, so the wager was totally legal. When he realized at training camp that he had misunderstood the rules and broken them, he told his coach.

The result was a ridiculous six-game suspension — it was nine games before an appeal — for doing the right thing. Tisdale said he was scared he might be found out and harm the bowl eligibility for his team. Those enforcing the rules nonetheless insisted they had no choice but to punish Tisdale.

Under the new rules, there would be leeway. He might miss a game or two, but there’s discretion for extenuating circumstances and forthright honesty.

The NCAA rules changes are good, not perfect

I still have some quibbles. I don’t really understand why there are any penalties at all if the student-athlete is of age, not betting on their own team and sport and it’s legal in their state. It’s especially strange in places where the university has an “official gambling partner” to muddy the morality waters.

But a league is allowed to have rules and student-athletes, like any other employees, agree to them as a condition of their hiring or recruiting. Everyone with a job knows there are rules, whether they involve keeping a clean driving record or being able to pass drug tests. Here at Catena Media, we’re prohibited from using AI in our reporting or writing. It might only briefly delay the takeover of our industry by our new electronic overlords, but we do as we’re told.

So in this case, some elements of these rules don’t necessarily have anything to do with protecting the integrity on the game or sport. But as long as they’re reasonable and the penalties proportionate to the infraction, this seems fair.

The pro leagues, made up of fully grown adults, should take note. The idea that an NFL player can’t bet on baseball — or even another football team they’re not playing against — from a device on an NFL property makes no sense.

Wow, the NCAA understands importance of education

A couple years ago, my nephew stopped participating in our family’s March Madness pool. He had recently become a graduate assistant football coach at a Division I school and he was taking the NCAA’s rules on gambling very, very seriously. They said no gambling whatsoever, he told me, and that even meant a friendly $10-a-bracket pool on a different division of a different sport.

“These are the rules,” he told me. “I asked someone. Everyone says it’s not worth it.”

Those may or may not have actually been the rules, but it was sweet — and impressive! — how much he and his colleagues wanted to adhere, to obey, to not cause trouble. The NCAA and the university athletic departments have an impressive level of influence over the student-athletes and other involved with their sports.

This is where these new rules excel. Nobody is losing their eligibility over friendly private betting pools anymore. They will, however, get some education on the dangers of gambling in general. These are young, impressionable, teachable kids. If they knowingly broke rules and risk their sports careers in order to gamble, there’s something more reckless, troubling, maybe even compulsive going on.

It’s almost as if they’re remembering that these are not money-making machines and that universities exist to teach.

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Photo by Keith Srakocic/AP photo; illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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