As societal norms have changed, NCAA Division I schools nationwide are confronting a quandary.

How do you legislate against longtime NCAA rules that prohibit things like marijuana usage or sports wagering — rules that were once in line with the law — when they’re becoming legal in society at-large?

Not all of these paradoxes are created equal. Take marijuana, for example. The NCAA has had more time to adjust to permissive marijuana laws as they’ve had a slower rollout nationwide and more gradual acceptance by society at-large. In June, for example, the NCAA changed the threshold for a positive marijuana test to 35 milligrams per nanometer. It had previously been 15.

However, marijuana legalization has only a tangential effect on the competition itself — if it has any effect at all.

Sports wagering, on the other hand, is a far different matter as far as Division I schools are concerned. The integrity of the event itself can be compromised by wagering. It’s the reason why sports at every level — pro and college — have long had draconian rules against sports betting, especially betting on the sport an athlete or coach participates in. 

Since college players are not paid, they are particularly susceptible to bad actors who may want to influence the outcome of a game to take advantage of a betting line.

And unlike the gradual relaxation of marijuana laws, the legalization of sports wagering is, comparatively, a runaway freight train. Since the Supreme Court lifted the nationwide ban on sports betting in May 2018, 17 states — in addition to Nevada, where sports wagering has long been legal — have legalized sports wagering. Twenty-five additional states have introduced bills that would make it so in their states.

And it’s a fast-track to legalization once laws are passed. Indiana’s sports wagering law was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb on May 8. Today, it becomes a reality as sports wagering begins at several Indiana-based casinos and racinos.

And eventually? Sports wagering will be able to be done in the palm of your hand via mobile gaming. This has not been the way of the world in NCAA circles and it’s a jarring adjustment for many within it.

“It’s something that I never dreamt that I’d even thought of doing let alone having it legalized. It will be a topic of discussion without a doubt. It’s uncharted territory,” Indiana State football coach Curt Mallory said in July. “That’s a whole different gamut that I’ll have to dive into a lot more too. It’s a 180 turn. They can do it right off their phone which is insane to imagine, but it’s the world we’re living in so we have to adjust.”

The NCAA’s schools are not used to moving this fast when it comes to adjusting their guidelines or adapting to rapidly changing societal norms. However, sports wagering is here and schools like Indiana State have to confront a new reality.

Getting ready for change

Indiana State assistant athletic director/compliance Joel McMullen has been ISU’s director of compliance since 2007. He wasn’t blind to the change that was coming.

“We’ve known it was coming for some time. My take from the get-go was to look at it much like I looked at the legalization of marijuana in states where marijuana is a banned substance by the NCAA. It may be legal, but you can’t have it in your system if you’re an NCAA student-athlete. I viewed it in that sense, but it can cause much more damage to the integrity of collegiate athletes,” McMullen said.

Until now, sports wagering has been a sort of back-burner issue. Something to keep in mind, but not pay an inordinate amount of attention to. When sports wagering was illegal, compliance simply had to reinforce that it was against the law and against NCAA regulations. Now? That’s changed.

“We usually spend a few minutes on sports wagering, but now the world has changed. Now our efforts are more in-depth and broader. We’re hitting it hard in our rules education meetings with each of our teams, especially with baseball, football and men’s and women’s basketball,” McMullen said.

McMullen said part of that education will include an emphasis on the NCAA’s Don’t Bet On It public service campaign. He said that he intends to send out periodic reminders, more so than he has in the past, on the dangers of sports betting.

Another aspect of ISU’s approach has been to metaphorically circle the wagons. Their belief is that information that can be used by gamblers must be cut off at the sources, of which there are many in any collegiate sports program if you take into account managers, athletic trainers and support staff beyond the athletes and coaches themselves. Instructions have been given that any information that can be used by gamblers must not be shared. 

It’s a loose lips sink ships approach.

“Their careers are at risk if they’re caught up in that activity. You have to speak to [it] in terms of dire scenarios. Worse case scenarios. This is what happens when you do this. You have to lay out the consequences,” McMullen said. “There has to be an element of fear and consequence and unfortunately in my business? That’s sometimes the most effective deterrent.”

The element of fear is real. Employees who engage in sports wagering can be terminated and those who work in athletics could be subject to an NCAA show-cause if they seek employment elsewhere. Student-athletes can be dismissed and have their scholarships revoked.

McMullen said that it’s such an important issue that acknowledgment forms have to be signed all the way to ISU President Deborah Curtis’ level within the university and for anyone else involved with athletics from the student-athletes on up the chain.

ISU Director of Athletics Sherard Clinkscales agreed with the scared-straight approach.

“How do you communicate to them and help them understand that the information they know is something they can’t share with people? Whether on purpose or just having a conversation. Even if it’s someone at church saying, ‘How is so-and-so doing?’ You have to be careful about what’s being said because someone could be gathering information for betting purposes,” Clinkscales said.

While ISU is instructing its athletes and staff to be tight-lipped, there’s a school of thought that suggests the opposite could be the best deterrent. 

A public injury list could shine a light on any question marks over injuries. The original iteration of the Big East Conference had an injury list for football. 

As it currently stands, NCAA teams can be tight-lipped about injuries, which has the added competitive benefit of not revealing injuries to opponents, but in trying to be tight-lipped? They might be having the opposite effect than intended as far as gambling is concerned.

This summer, the NCAA Board Of Governors explored the possibility of mandating a public injury list with the rise of legal sports wagering. Ultimately, it was decided that it was too impractical to implement. A view that jives with that of the league ISU participates in.

“The MVFC [nor MVC] has never considered implementing a conference level policy for injury/participation disclosure. To address any issues related to gambling, it would have to be implemented nationally,” said Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito. “Federal laws protecting student-athlete privacy are obviously a major stumbling block in instituting a national policy. That and the wide range of opinions among coaches that would make consistent compliance problematic.”

When asked about what approach to the issue would be the proper one to avoid problems, the Indiana Gaming Commission had no comment.

The onus then falls on the schools to make sure they’re taking any issues seriously.

“From a student-athlete standpoint? It’s all about education. The decisions they make won’t just affect their eligibility, but impact their whole lives. History hasn’t been too kind [to those] that have been caught in gambling or point-shaving schemes. We have to get out front and educate,” Clinkscales said.

ISU, and other Indiana colleges, are also relying on the help of the IGC.

IGC and colleges meet

Soon after legal sports wagering became law in May, the IGC recognized that there are some parties who will need guidance in navigating legal sports betting. College athletic programs were on the IGC’s radar.

“As soon as the bill passed? We realized there’s a lot of stakeholders in these activities. Our job is to ensure the integrity of the wagering. However, you have an ecosystem where you have the perspective of colleges and universities and they have a very real concern over the integrity of the sport. We wanted to have an open dialogue,” IGC executive director Sara Gonso Tait said.

The IGC met with representatives from Indiana’s Division I colleges on June 21. Naturally, there were a lot of questions on the part of the schools.

“Would it be possible to prohibit wagering on home Division I sponsored state sports?” McMullen said he asked the IGC. “They didn’t have the ability to restrict beyond what the legislature passed, so all Division I programs are open-season.”

Among the biggest issues the colleges have is the ease of access. Since legal wagering will eventually have a mobile component to it, gambling will be at the fingertips of every athlete and will be legal for those over the age of 21, though against NCAA rules. It becomes nearly impossible to police it on any kind of realistic level.

“The ease of it is a big concern. Is there a warning when you sign up for those accounts?” said McMullen, relaying another of his questions. The schools were told there could be some form of disclaimer included when someone sets up an account, but legally, the IGC can’t stop someone over 21 from creating one just because they’re an athlete.

The integrity issues the schools are concerned about dovetail with the concerns the IGC has in above-board wagering. Any hint of impropriety in the betting process falls under the IGC’s jurisdiction.

“We’ve hired a dedicated law enforcement officer for our sports wagering division. The statute does reference investigation if there’s suspicious wagering going on and mandates that we share information with the relevant sanctioning bodies,” Tait said.

For betting in general, the IGC will mandate that operators have a sports wagering integrity service in place to ensure that no one is unduly affecting the betting line, regardless of whether it’s a college event or not. 

It’s also in the interest of the sports betting operators, too.

“Not only is the sports wagering integrity service going to be looking for that, but the operators are going to be looking for that. The thing we’ve learned in this process is there’s a lot of risk running a sports book. They lose money sometimes, unlike the casino business where they know they’re going to make money with a big house advantage. That’s not the case [with sports wagering]. Setting lines and making sure nothing nefarious is going on is critical to their success,” said IGC deputy director Jenny Reske.

Clinkscales felt re-assured that there are eyes on the gambling world.

“The commission did a good job of pointing out that people will be monitoring under cover and there’s a defense, if you will, and there are people in the weeds tracking things,” Clinkscales said.

This is not a new issue for schools

However, none of what the IGC is doing is a replacement for the vigilance that still must happen at the university level. The IGC was quick to point out that while sports gambling is not legal, it’s always occurred illegally in Indiana, and legally in other states. There has always been a betting line on nearly all of the Division I schools in the state. It just happens to be legal inside the state now.

“Our job is to catch black market play and make it regulated and transparent. Just because it’s legal now doesn’t mean it’s something they haven’t already been subject to,” Reske said.

“These risks, while I do understand they weren’t making them in Indiana legally, they were [already] making them in other states. So the train is going to keep coming down the tracks as it comes online in more states. Frankly, I think this is something I think a lot of colleges and universities are going to work on and a lot of it is education with their student-athletes,” IGC general counsel Greg Small said.

One thing that was suggested in the IGC meeting was to provide a list of student-athletes, coaches and support staff that would be banned from sports wagering.

“We did set up a scheme whereby we could request a sanctioning bodies’ list of those people so we could ensure our casino operators prohibit them from placing mobile wagers,” Tait said.

However, the idea was deemed too restrictive by ISU’s representatives. As the schools understood it, any list provided to the IGC bans someone from gambling on anything at all — card games, slot machines, etc. There is no way to parse certain kinds of betting from one another with a so-called blacklist.

“The fear is that is was a blanket thing,” McMullen said. “Logistically? It’s an ever-evolving list. Who would be in charge of maintaining that and updating that and who at the IGC is going to monitor that?”

So what happens if, despite everything put in place by universities, there’s a suspicion that a sporting event is being manipulated? That’s when the IGC steps in.

“We don’t want to see any unusual or suspicious wagering that doesn’t get fully vetted. If we start to see odd bets? We can pull the plug on wagering on that event and conduct an investigation,” Reske said.

Some universities could also create geofencing — an electronic means of preventing online gambling in a defined area — around the athletic facilities to prevent any betting going on during games themselves. Geofencing is the same technology that will prevent anyone from betting via an Indiana gambling app outside of state lines.

According to McMullen, geofencing will not happen at ISU as it is too cost-prohibitive. Inquiries to other state universities about their policies were not responded to by press time.

In the end? ISU and other NCAA universities have to rely on the same attribute they rely on for any of their other rules — trust. 

“You have to be able to trust that they’re going to make the right decision and it goes to the character of who you’re recruiting. Our kids typically make the right decisions and understand the ramifications if they get involved in that kind of stuff,” Clinkscales said.

McMullen was more blunt in his assessment.

“I can’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about the unique, strange situations. The bottom line is we tell them the rules and we tell them the rules to be a Division I athlete. If you’re going to risk everything to do something like that? Then you need to re-think why you’re [a student-athlete],” McMullen said. 

Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.

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