By Varun Shankar, The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism
When Tom McMillen discusses college sports and legalized gambling, he’s straightforward about his concern. He fears a game-fixing scandal that would shake the confidence of fans across the country.
“I would say 99 percent of the sports-betting scandals that have occurred had been in the college market,” said McMillen, a former U.S. Congressman and basketball All American at the University of Maryland.
Two of the most high-profile betting scandals in sports history have occurred at the college level. Boston College’s basketball program was ensnared in point-shaving controversy in the 1978-1979 season. In the 1950-51 season, City College of New York (CCNY) and at least six other schools were involved in a notorious incident involving players being paid to throw games.
With legal betting now an option for most fans, “I think there’s just that general fear that college kids could be exploited in this environment,” said McMillen, now CEO of LEAD1, an organization that represents athletic directors and programs of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Sports fans generally welcome sports betting, according to a recent poll conducted by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, in collaboration with the university’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement and The Washington Post.
However, a survey of 1,503 people found less support for betting on college sports compared to betting on professional sports. In the Povich Center-CDCE-Post survey, 66% of respondents approved of legalized betting on professional sports. Just 55% supported legal betting on college sports.
In Maryland, voters approved legalized sports gaming in 2020, and there are five retail betting operations in the state, but online sports betting awaits regulatory approval.
Ryan Ridgeway, a 30-year-old warehouse worker from Laurel, Maryland, supports betting on professional sports but is wary about college sports because of the varying player finances.
“At the professional level, they’re already getting paid millions of dollars, I feel like they’d be less likely to throw a game,” he said. “Since [college athletes aren’t] getting paid millions of dollars, they have more of an incentive to throw a game.”
Richael Faithful, a consultant who lives in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC., also expressed reservations.
“My concerns there are that betting will continue to influence how college officials and the college regulatory bodies treat student athletes,” they said.
Of the 30 states and D.C. that have passed legalized sports betting laws, 18 have some level of restriction on gambling on college sports. Virginia does not permit in-state betting on college sports. To place a bet on the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech requires crossing a state line into Maryland or West Virginia, for instance. In Maryland, wagering on both college and pro sports is permitted is only permitted at retail locations.
The ubiquity of mobile betting is a concern of gambling-addiction experts. Dr. Deborah Haskins, the President of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, said that being able to place bets on a cell phone lowers the barriers for gamblers, particularly those prone to compulsive behavior.
“If they’re betting electronically, they can stay in the game longer,” she said. “You’re seeing more people who are experiencing negative harms from gambling because now they can literally stay in the game 24/7.
“Gambling beyond your means economically … you’re spending more and more beyond what your budget is,” she said, adding that compulsive gamblers sometimes resort to drastic measures like using mortgage and rent money for gambling,” Haskins added.
In the Povich Center-CDCE-Post poll, concerns about sports gambling among younger fans was evident. Sixty-eight percent of respondents supported a minimum betting age of 21, compared to just 32% that supported a minimum age of 18.
Twenty-four states set their minimum gambling age to 21, with six states and Washington D.C. dropping it to 18. In Virginia and Maryland, the minimum age to gamble is 21.
In the poll, 20% of sports fans said they had bet on pro sports in the past five years compared to 17% of all respondents, Regarding college sports, only eleven percent of sports fans said they had bet in the last five years compared to nine percent of all respondents.