By Aaron Saunders & Rob Sawicki
February 26, 2019 at 5:00 am ET
There is perhaps no institution in America that has suffered a more tarnished reputation in recent years than the National Collegiate Athletic Association. And each time the organization’s president, Mark Emmert, wades into a public debate, the problem is only further exacerbated.
Look, for example, to Emmert’s comments last month on legalized sports gambling and the “integrity” of college athletics.
Some historical perspective is needed here. Most sports pundits and fans will recall that in 2011, the NCAA conducted an investigation into the University of Miami football program. The investigation was based on information from Nevin Shapiro, a prominent Miami booster, who owned a stake in a sports management company. In 2010, Shapiro pled guilty to securities fraud and money laundering and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
The NCAA not only relied on the testimony of a convicted felon, but according to media reports, they also deposited $4,500 into his prison commissary account and used his lawyers to serve subpoenas they never would have had the power to pursue alone. They did this in spite of serious ethical and legal concerns from the NCAA’s own lawyers. And, they did it on Mark Emmert’s watch, leaving a permanent black eye on the organization and its president.
Perhaps that’s why Emmert’s sanctimonious concern over the impact of legalized gambling on college sports rings so hollow.
The Associated Press reported that Emmert again urged the membership to stick to its principles. “Sports wagering is going to have a dramatic impact on everything we do in college sports,” Emmert said. “It’s going to threaten the integrity of college sports in many ways unless we are willing to act boldly and strongly.”
The NCAA president, who oversaw the organization using unethical means to target student athletes, is preaching about principles and integrity. That’s hardly a recipe for improving your credibility with the public and lawmakers, especially when the NCAA already appears to be on the fringe of the legalized sports gambling debate.
If Emmert were genuinely interested in the integrity of college athletics, he would recognize that taking sports betting out of the shadows, and making it legal and regulated, is the best way to ensure the integrity of college games.
Case in point: It was the legal sportsbook operators who were instrumental in exposing the Arizona State point-shaving scandal some 20 years ago. Unusually large bets caused vigilant sportsbooks to become suspicious and contact the FBI, leading to the arrest and prosecution of those involved in the scam.
Keeping gambling on college sports offshore not only puts potential scams outside the reach of U.S. regulators and law enforcement agencies, but also keeps billions of dollars of action out of the U.S. economy, which is top of mind for lawmakers coast to coast.
Emmert and the NCAA look particularly Neanderthal in light of recent progress being made by professional sports leagues in striking data and marketing partnerships with sportsbook operators, with the National Basketball Association leading the way. Leadership within these organizations have rightly adapted to both changes in public perception and a significant appetite for legalized gambling among the nation’s policymakers, at all levels of government.
Of course, it is likely money — not integrity — driving the NCAA’s short-sighted opposition to legalized sports gambling. Last summer, West Virginia and Marshall expressed an interest in receiving a percentage of the action legally wagered on sports in the state in the form of an integrity fee. They joined Rutgers, Connecticut and Missouri, which were among the other schools that have met with Major League Baseball to strategize on the issue.
Yet to date, legal sportsbooks are operating in eight states, and none have agreed to an integrity kickback. And it is unlikely that other states will agree to such a “fee.”
If the NCAA wants a seat at the table, it should first dispense with the stubbornness that has defined Emmert’s tenure and instead focus on tangible progress that may restore some credibility lost with policymakers and other stakeholders. If Emmert believes collegiate athletes might be tempted to take a payoff to rig game outcomes, he could address this concern by giving his support to compensating them.
The NCAA reports annual revenues of $1 billion, while its member schools’ revenue is $9 billion. The athlete-students (yes, you read that correctly) that Emmert is so concerned about get paid nothing. The NCAA sharing revenue with its athletes – in some form or fashion – would be a good faith way of demonstrating that the organization and its schools truly care about integrity, and not just money.
While paying players will not be a panacea, it would demonstrate that the NCAA understands the fundamental exposure and risk it has always created for unpaid athletes, while also recognizing the fact that it is the players that fans shell out money to watch, and it is the players that gamblers are wagering on.
Legalized sports betting is going to continue to expand in the United States whether Mark Emmert and the NCAA like it or not. The question for the NCAA is, does it want to be a constructive stakeholder and help shape public policy or continue to stick to its “principles,” which means integrity taking a backseat to power and greed.
Rather than recycling decades-old talking points, Emmert should show some real leadership and pursue concrete policy changes that limit risk and expand earning opportunities for collegiate athletes. After all, for embattled institutions, actions have always spoken louder than words. That is especially true when those words come from Mark Emmert.
Aaron Saunders is the CEO of Drumfire Public Affairs in Washington D.C., and in his free time, he writes about a number of sports-related topics, including sports controversies, wagering and analytics. Rob Sawicki is a speechwriter and media consultant for Drumfire Public Affairs.
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