Senate Panel Time Machine: Legislative Hearing On College Sports Gambling Rife With Outdated Opinions

Wednesday's Senate Judiciary hearing on college sports gambling didn't focus on the NCAA's real problem: the charade of amateurism.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill aren’t exactly known for having their finger on the pulse of America’s zeitgeist.

Forget the zeitgeist. When it comes to the basic, everyday experiences of their constituents, members of congress can often seem hopelessly out of touch with issues that millions of Americans understand to be facts of life. Often, the disconnect between lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and the civilians they represent becomes most apparent when tech CEOs are summoned to testify.

These are the same legislators who, in 2018, weren’t aware that it’s impossible to send email within the WhatsApp messaging platform and who asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg if he could “bring some fiber [to my state], because we don’t have connectivity.” (It’s worth noting that the current average age of U.S. Senators is 62.9 years old, and their counterparts in the House of Representatives clock in at 57.6.)

Wednesday afternoon, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing led by chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — the same politician who asked Zuckerberg “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” — our nation’s highest legislative body again seemed behind the times. On this occasion, however, the panel wasn’t focused on big tech but on whether the federal government should prohibit gambling on college sports, and whether student-athletes should be allowed to share in profits generated from the use of their names, images, and likenesses.

The hearing was split into two panels, the second of which focused on sports gambling and at times seemed to harken back decades, to an age of pure competition, untarnished by bettors, which never existed. (Remember the NCAA men’s basketball scandals of the 1950s and ’60s? CCNY? Jack Molinas? The blackballing of athletes like Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, and others?)

On Wednesday, however, the NCAA’s position, advocating for a ban on college sports gambling and presented by University of Pittsburgh Athletic Director Heather Lyke, managed to out-retrograde the senators. “The introduction of legal wagering on intercollegiate athletics will have a corrosive and detrimental impact on student-athletes and the general student body alike,” Lyke said. “Gambling creates pressures and temptations that should not exist.”

Those pressures and temptations are real, but Lyke seemed to ignore the prevalence of illegal gambling on college athletics long before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 2018 and allowed states to introduce regulated, legal sports betting.

The AGA as a voice of reason

As fellow panelist Bill Miller, CEO of the American Gaming Association, pointed out in his testimony, illegal sports bets totaled an estimated $150 billion annually before PASPA was deemed unconstitutional, with almost one-third of that total handle spent on college athletics.

“No one has a greater vested interest in avoiding scandals than legal gaming operators,” Miller said. “The history is that match-fixing has been discovered almost every time by the legal operators that recognized the anomalous betting activity.” An AGA study released this week showed that illegal betting through bookies had gone down 25% in states that had legalized sports betting, compared to a drop of only 3% in states where sports gambling remained illegal.

Although Graham appeared to grasp Miller’s argument that “any effort to ban legal wagering on college athletics simply ignores the immutable fact that there remains significant demand for betting on college sports” and that “illegal operators will unequivocally meet this demand” if Congress restricts legal sports betting, the senator still had moments where he appeared out of his depth.

“Prop betting — is that what you call it?” Graham asked of Lyke, accepting her far-fetched examples of legal sportsbooks offering lines on which team would win the opening tip-off of an NCAA basketball game or whether the first pitch of an at-bat in a College World Series game might be called a ball or strike.

Miller attempted to clarify, explaining that “sportsbooks want to be able to ensure the integrity of the activity” and thus would be unlikely to offer lines on such trivial and easily manipulable propositions in college sports contests, but Graham was already musing aloud about how much money NCAA football team trainers could win by betting on play calls they knew in advance.

“We need to do something about that,” Graham said — even though, in practice, legal sportsbooks almost never offer such propositions.

The senator let out some even bigger whoppers during the opening panel on name, image, and likeness issues. “We cannot have a bidding war for recruits,” Graham said while voicing concern over the possibility that high-profile universities might be able to offer prospective players greater earning potential and thus create an uneven playing field for recruiters. Meanwhile, it’s common knowledge among most sports fans that elite high school athletes often receive under-the-table payments and other incentives from shoe companies and team boosters to attend certain schools.

Essentially, the U.S. Senate and the NCAA appeared to be the last remaining bodies on God’s green Earth that believe that the bidding war over blue-chip talent and illegal gambling on college sports haven’t been ongoing for many, many years.

Amateurism the root of NCAA’s problems

Why is the NCAA holding onto its belief in a time-warp fantasy world where elite recruits never receive illicit payments and college athletes weren’t subjected to illegal gambling-related corruption prior to 2018? An exchange between Lyke and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), ranking member of the judiciary committee, hinted at the underlying truth.

“I assume your argument on name, image, and likeness is that if there is compensation for these athletes, there is less of a temptation to match-fix because there’s some compensation outside of that illegal means,” Blumenthal said.

Lyke, who earlier in the hearing argued that “college student-athletes are uniquely susceptible” to manipulation from game-fixers, replied: “You can’t absolve students or people from financial temptation, but it may lessen them a bit — possibly.”

Lyke’s noncommittal response hints at the NCAA’s real problem — the charade of amateurism among its athletes. For decades, major college sports have generated billions of dollars in TV rights for colleges and universities and their athletic programs. Likewise, they’ve generated billions in overall handle on illegal and legal sports betting.

And the only stakeholders in the college sports enterprise who’ve been prohibited from taking part in the annual billion-dollar bonanza are the athletes, without whom there would be no Bowl Championship Series or March Madness.

If college athletes were permitted to earn money off the use of their names, images, and likenesses, the risk of them accepting illicit payments to shave points wouldn’t be eliminated, but it would be lessened.

Gambling isn’t the problem — it’s a constant. But the risks and temptations that come with sports betting can be tempered by state regulation and legal operators who are incentivized to prioritize transparency and consumer protection. Unfortunately, the NCAA seems incapable of acknowledging this, because if it did, the organization might be forced to confront the inequitable system at its own, rotten core.

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