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The odds of a college athlete betting on March Madness are enough to scare the NCAA
By Chad Millman
ESPN The Magazine
This story appears in the March 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Sometimes it's just a number. Only 30% of the Earth is covered by land; 30% of the Twitter feeds on the day Michael Jackson died were tributes to the King of Pop. These are neutral facts, nothing to worry about.
But every once in a while, 30% can make you say, "Uh-oh." Sometimes three in 10 feels more like the start of an upward trend, the edge of a strengthening wave. For example, a recent survey of more than 4,800 Americans concluded that nearly 30% of us drive while texting. In December 2008, a study of 29,000 high school students revealed that 30% had stolen something in the previous year. And then there is this: Nearly 30% of a sample of male college athletes say they bet on sports. Uh-oh.
Last November the NCAA released the results of the most comprehensive examination of student-athletes' gambling habits ever compiled. The anonymous, 96-question survey, developed in conjunction with quantitative research scientists, was sent to more than 1,000 NCAA institutions -- D1 through D3 -- in the fall of 2008. And more than 19,000 student-athletes responded. It was the second time the NCAA had done this. In 2004, an equally massive survey asked athletes about all forms of risky behavior. "We learned that, unlike sex and drinking, gambling wasn't discussed as much by coaches or by us," says the NCAA's gambling czar, Rachel Newman-Baker. "So, we spent a few years focusing our educational efforts, then did a survey solely about gambling."
The NCAA sees gambling as only slightly less evil than a congressional investigation of the BCS. And though official fears end with point-shaving scandals, that's not where they start. What keeps Newman-Baker up at night are the players who make small, seemingly innocuous bets on, say, last month's Super Bowl or the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Those wagers, she believes, are the gateway to more serious headlines. And she knows the only way the NCAA can protect itself and its athletes is by knowing exactly how players, to put it in Vegas terms, play. "The survey results," says Newman-Baker, "served as a wake-up call."
In 2008, the nearly 30% of the male athletes who identified themselves as social sports bettors (once or more in the previous year represented a 6% increase from 2004. At the high end of frequent bettors were golfers (19.6%), at the low end were swimmers (4.3%) and in the middle were basketball (10%) and football (9%) players. And in reality, the numbers may be higher. "If you ask certain types of questions to 20-year-olds, some will goof around," says Tom Paskus, the NCAA's top researcher. "We understand the survey's limitations."
You don't need a study to see that no sports organization has been more vulnerable to betting scandals than the NCAA. It has suffered public point-shaving incidents in each of the past six decades: CCNY and six other schools in the 1950s; 22 schools in one point-shaving ring in the '60s; Boston College in the '70s; Tulane in the '80s; Arizona State in the '90s; and Toledo a few years ago. "Will a player who plays March Madness pools end up point-shaving?" Newman-Baker asks, posing the ultimate question. "I can tell you none of these scandals started with an athlete making a $1,000 bet. Our research shows it starts with much smaller ones."
Ryan Brooks, Temple's senior guard and leading scorer, went to high school in affluent Lower Merion, Pa. He recalls classmates who bet $100 a game. (According to the survey, 91.8% of gambling jocks got their start before college.) But it isn't always cash that changes hands. "My teammates and I make bets on video games," Brooks says. "We play for lunch or laundry or 10 sprints, little playful bets to add excitement. I've also seen a lot of that on football games."
All of which worries Newman-Baker. Of the male athletes who bet socially on sports, an NFL game is the likely wager for 69.2% of them. But a close second, at 62.6%, is the NCAA Tourney. The survey doesn't separate March Madness pools from straight bets, but the volume of questions players ask Newman-Baker about whether they can join them -- and if they are even legal -- indicate it's where a good chunk of student-athlete money is going. That's not surprising. Brackets are the enduring symbol of an event that for three weeks each year hogs the national conversation. Last March, when President Obama made his picks on ESPN, he said, "Whether it's a $5 bet by the mill worker in Minnesota or a $5,000 buy-in by a Wall Street executive, all of America has a stake in these games."
Pair that endorsement from the hoopster-in-chief with the deluge of online pools on ESPN, Yahoo! and CBSSports (whose parent company shelled out billions of dollars to broadcast the Tourney), and you can see why it's so hard for athletes to understand that throwing in a few bucks to play bracketologist is wrong. "You're always aware of the pools," says Scottie Reynolds, Villanova's All-Big East point guard. "It's one of the top ways people participate. It's the greatest thing for a gambler."
THE TWO SPORTS COLLEGE JOCKS BET ON MOST: THE NFL (69.2%) AND THE NCAA TOURNAMENT (62.6%).
Fact is, gambling has reached new levels of social acceptability over the past couple of decades. In 1988, only two states had casinos. Today, 37 do. Poker, again with a nudge from ESPN, has morphed from neighborhood game to national pastime. Even sports betting -- long the province of backroom bookies and smoke-filled sports books -- has been sanitized and demystified. Megabytes of info that flow online, from injury updates to a player's girlfriend troubles, have everyone thinking they can find an edge. And with gambling action available all over cyberspace, even the vaguely curious can take a shot. No wonder online sports gambling is expected to be a $1.75 billion business in 2010. Take away their crazy hops and fast 40 times, and athletes are just like the rest of us. Among those males surveyed, online wagering nearly doubled from 2004 to 2008, from 10.9% to 18.8%. "People are more comfortable talking about betting," says Brooks, "because we are around it so much."
This is what Scottie Reynolds remembers most about that Saturday morning last September: "the mafia guy."
Reggie Redding, his teammate, was there too. He remembers a video. "But mostly ... " Redding's voice trails off, and a smile spreads across his face. "Mostly," he says, "I remember that mob guy."
That mob guy, Michael Franzese, leaves an impression. Maybe it's the unfettered Brooklyn accent. Or tales from his days as a capo in the Colombo crime family in the '80s, when Fortune named him one of the richest gangsters in the world. Then again, it could be the way he talks about how easy it is to mark college ballers willing to fix games.
"I used to hang in clubs near schools," Franzese says. "We'd see a senior, a guy who starts but isn't going to the pros. We'd buy him a drink, let him come by our table and see the girls, get to know him. Then we'd see him again another night, talk him up some more. This time it would get personal, and we'd ask him how much money he had on him. Then we'd say, 'Look, you're not going pro, and you're not a brain surgeon. You've got 15 games left in your career. Don't cover the spread.' Then I'd put $10,000 in his pocket. Ten was the number. If he was going to do it, you had him at 10."
Franzese is the kind of guy who should chill the blood of NCAA suits. Instead, he is one of their ringers. In the early '90s, in the midst of a second prison stint stemming from a previous conviction for bootlegging gas, he found God and quit the mob. When he got out in 1995, he dedicated his life to preaching the perils of gambling. For the past 15 years, he's appeared at hundreds of colleges across the country on behalf of the NCAA, including that memorable stop at Villanova last September.
His message to athletes is simple: In matters of gambling, information is gold. Even the most innocent handicappers -- friends, classmates, professors -- will approach you looking for a scoop. According to the NCAA survey, the percentage of D1 college football and basketball players who reported being approached for inside information has more than doubled since 2004, from 1.6% to 3.7%. "A student came up to me while I was eating lunch the other day and wanted to know about something that happened in practice," Reynolds says. "I know there is gambling going on, so my answer to any questions about the team is always the same: 'We're all just trying to get better.'"
The good news from the NCAA's standpoint is that while athletes are being probed more often, the percentage of them who admit to giving up information has decreased since 2004 -- from 1.85% to 1%. Newman-Baker still sees plenty of reasons to remain vigilant, though. Last season, she gave talks to players at the NCAA regional sites during the Tourney. "After one presentation, a student manager came up to me and showed me a text he'd gotten during my talk," she says. "It read, 'Any updates on injuries? I'm about to bet the game.'"
DO BIG PROBLEMS START WITH SMALL BETS? THE MOST COMMON ONE-DAY WIN TOTAL AMONG MALE ATHLETES IS LESS THAN $100.
So the battle continues. The NCAA has collected enough data to fill Lucas Oil Stadium on Final Four weekend, but the fact that folks like Newman-Baker know who gambles on what and how often doesn't mean they can always protect the integrity of college sports. The scenarios in which a college kid might find himself looking for a quick payday -- big or small -- are too many to count. And, says Newman-Baker, "most kids don't think they're the ones who will get caught."
There's also this: Despite the NCAA's warnings and Franzese's scare tactics, 53.3% of those surveyed in 2008 think sports wagering is "a harmless pastime."
Chad Millman is a senior deputy editor for ESPN The Magazine.
ESPN.com - Fine line
May the odds be ever in your favor.
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