Sports Wagering — Who is Involved and Why?

Gambling and sports have gone together for over a century, according to a new book called Sports Ethics for Sports Management Professionals, so this is not a new phenomenon at all. But to quote from the book, “Gambling in sports is replete with unethical motives and practices”; and indeed the authors go on to point out that gambling “is a form of cheating, an act through which the conditions for winning in a sports contest have been unfairly changed in favor of one participant over another” (Thornton, et al., 2010, p. 82). Thornton and colleagues are referring to the “odds” — often determined by how much money is placed on an individual team or competitor — but they go a great deal deeper into the issue of sports wagering. This paper covers the issue of sports wagering — the how, where, and why — and references cases where sports players and the case where an NBA official bet on games in which he was officiating.

The Sports Wagering Field — Whats Available for Wagering

Thornton explains that gambling poses “major ethical dilemmas for leagues, fans, players, coaches and society in general. Because the media reports all the particulars that wagering sports fans need to know — point-spreads, player and team information, and injury reports — one can easily see that sports wagering is not a shadowy, bookie-controlled industry anymore, but in fact an out-in — the open part of American life.

Back in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, a person wishing to wager found a local friendly bookie and placed bets over the phone, with money up front in the bookies hands. Some of the book-making operations were run by organized crime and were extremely profitable.

Meanwhile, with the emergence of digital technology in the 1980s and 1990s, wagering has been made very easy for the interested party with cash and dreams of scoring big. Today, the legal rule of thumb is that the only way to place a bet on a sports event is to be in Nevada or Oregon, states that have legalized wagering on sports. But in reality all a wagering person has to do is sign up with any one of a number of online betting portals. There is a process a wagering person has to go through to prove he or she is of age, and that he or she has a legitimate bank account — and money has to be deposited with the betting portal. Aside from that, its a smooth ride to spending money on wagering, and to the possibility that it will become an addiction.

Some of the popular betting Web sites include BetPhoenix, BetUs, Bookmaker, Bet Jamaica, Brobury, and BoDog. For example, BoDog offers wagering on college and pro-football, tennis, Mixed Martial Arts, pro-hockey, NASCAR, golf, Cricket, Soccer, Rugby League, Horse Racing, Darts, Boxing Snooker and other sports as well. A person can play Poker at BoDog (a $100,000 “Guaranteed Tournament Every Sunday”), or play Casino, which features online slot machines, games that offer a “Random Jackpot” of $2,000, $6,000, and card games like Blackjack.

Because of the ease with which a person can become involved in online betting, there is always a risk of becoming hooked on the hope of winning while ones savings and earnings slide down the drain like water after a big rainstorm hurtling down the sewer.

Actually the United States Congress passed legislation in 1992 — the “Professional and amateur Sports Protection Act” — that prohibits the expansion of legalized sports wagering in the U.S., according to an article in New Directions for Student Services (Rockey, et al., 2006, p. 47). Other legislation has passed through Congress but none have become law. The “Amateur Sports Integrity Act” (2000); the “High School and College Gambling Prohibition Act” (2000); the “Internet Gambling Prohibition Act” (1997); and the “Student Athlete Protection Act” (2000) have all failed to become law. It appears that the gaming industry has done an effective job of lobbying Congress and the executive branch at the right times to prevent laws that might reduce in some way their profits.

College students are known to enjoy wagering on sports. The data shows that because “Internet access is ubiquitous” something like “one-quarter to one-half” of all college students engage in wagering (Rockey, 45). Another survey that Rockey references shows that fraternities in particular are known to have a high percentage of members wagering on sports; in fact 65.4% of fraternity members and only 38.3% of their non-fraternity counterparts were found to be regular wagering students (45).

Rockey reports on another study that reports up to 25% of NCAA Division 1 football and basketball players wagered on sporting event in college; and of those, 4% were found to have gamboled on games in which they participated (45). Does this mean that college and university students are more prone to “pathological gambling”? Rockeys data shows that about 6.2% of student athletes become involved in problem gambling, and the rate for college non-athletes is lower, only 3.4% (46).

Not surprisingly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) takes a hard line against sports wagering by student athletes. On its Web site the NCAA warns student athletes that they are “easy marks for obtaining inside information or for affecting the outcome of a game” (NCAA). Moreover, student athletes who gamble “may be breaking the law,” and in any case they are “jeopardizing their eligibility,” the NCAA statement continues.

The “Facts” according to the NCAA: the FBI estimates that $2.5 billion is wagered “illegally on March Madness”; and, according to its 2003 survey, roughly thirty-five percent of male student athletes and ten percent of female student athletes admit to wagering on sports games. The NCAA specifically prohibits not only student athletes, but also staff members in athletic departments, conference office staff and NCAA national office employees from wagering on “amateur and professional sports in which the Association conducts championships” (NCAA). The NCAA points out on its Web site that NCAA student athletes and personnel may not wager on the NBA because “the NCAA conducts championships in basketball,” albeit the connection is not made clear in that statement.

The NCAA issued a report in 2004 that showed 17.2% of male student athletes (and (5.9% of female student athletes) admitted to wagering on college sports in Division 1. In Division II, the percentages were 21 and 5.8; in Division III it was 24.4% and 5.3% respectively. As to the “Top Three Reasons” student athletes wager, for males in Division I, 91.3% say they do it for fun; 65.1% say its for winning money; and 56.5% say it is “for excitement” (NCAA). The numbers for female student athletes are very closely matched with the males.

Examples of Gambling Cases that Exposed Unethical Sporting Behaviors

The most notorious gambling scandal in U.S. sporting history is believed by most observers to be the “Black Sox Scandal” in the World Series of 1919. Some Chicago White Sox players took cash payments to deliberately “throw” the series, and they did, losing to Cincinnati, 5 games to 3.

More recently there have been several very public scandals involving sports betting by well-known or high visibility sports actors. Pete Rose is probably the most notorious high-profile sports figure who got mired in a wagering scandal. Rose was caught betting on his own team while he managed the Cincinnati Reds Major League Baseball Team. The reason Roses issue became so big is because he has the most hits by a major leaguer in history. He broke Ty Cobbs record with a single on September 11, 1985, his 4,192nd hit in the big leagues. In May, 1989, special investigator John Dowd presents a 225-page report on Roses gambling to the commissioner Bart Giamatti, and on Aug. 24, 1989 Rose agreed to a lifetime ban from baseball, and hence, he was barred from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In an article on Rose admitted he “bet on my team every night”; why did he do it, he was asked. “I made a big mistake. Its my fault. Its nobody elses fault,” he said, adding that it is too bad he is banned from the hall of fame because “Im the best ambassador baseball has” (

NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on NBA games for four years, and that includes some of the games during which he was officiating. He was also known to have spent four years advising “professional gamblers about which teams to pick, through telephone calls and coded language,” according to an article in The New York Times (Beck, et al., 2007). He actually provided gamblers with information about which referees were working, the health of the players and the relationships between referees and players, Beck explains. Those activities not only got him removed from his position in the NBA, he was charged with a federal crime and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Donaghy was initially paid $2,000.

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