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Orlando Sentinel
Orlando Sentinel
Edgar Thompson

Florida’s Billy Napier, Todd Golden, SEC coaches voice concern with sports betting’s prevalence

When sports betting eventually becomes legal in Florida, the Gators do not expect to be blindsided.

The potential impact and pitfalls of sports wagering is front of mind and a major focus for coaches and administrators nationwide. Just as omnipresent as online betting is the percolating fear a player or program could become embroiled in scandal.

The looming risks of legalization recently became a stark reality — and a cautionary tale.

Alabama fired baseball coach Brad Bohannon in May for betting against his own team while more than 40 athletes at the universities of Iowa and Iowa State are under investigation for potential illegal wagering.

“There’s going to be more,” UF football coach Billy Napier said. “If it’s happening one place, it’s probably happening in other places. This is the world that we live in.”

Sports betting is now legal in 38 states but not Florida after a failed attempt two years ago.

Yet the state can resume its push after the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., decided June 30 to overturn a lower-court ruling that halted a compact between the state and Seminole Tribe in August 2021. This agreement briefly allowed gambling on phones and computers within Florida but tied to a server on tribal land.

“Florida remains the only state to have passed a sports betting law, launched legal sports betting and then had it declared invalid by a court,” Miami-based sports and gaming attorney Daniel Wallach told the Orlando Sentinel.

As Florida looks to legalize sports wagering, most NCAA member institutions play in states where it is allowed.

Schools consequently aim to track players, coaches, support staff, employees and even students privy to knowledge that could influence a game’s outcome.

“College campuses are incubators of inside information,” Wallach said.

Sports wagering apps on mobile devices provide easy access and endless temptation to an at-risk demographic.

Colleges also are home to males 18-21 years old, the age group with the highest incidence of gambling problems. An athlete’s mental makeup is another potential red flag.

“More than anything it’s the shift of gambling going from bookies and Vegas to just being online — just the accessibility,” Florida men’s basketball coach Todd Golden said. “The challenge is student-athletes, even coaches, are competitive. Gambling’s competitive.

“It’s a fine line.”

Nevada, home to Las Vegas, was the only state with legal sports wagering until the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New Jersey in (Governor Phillip) Murphy vs. the NCAA on May 14, 2018.

During the SEC spring meetings, Commissioner Greg Sankey recalled his concerns at the time of the ruling.

“I warned about the enculturation of gambling and how people would behave differently,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing.”

Sankey used the annual meetings of coaches, athletic directors and school presidents May 30-June 2 in Destin to reiterate his message in the wake of the Alabama baseball scandal.

Multiple presentations were given by U.S. Integrity, a company professional leagues and college conferences — including the SEC since 2018 — used to monitor potential gambling improprieties.

“I left Destin thinking, ‘Man, we have to reiterate to our guys how serious this is,’ ” Golden said, “and how they can’t have any sort of involvement whether it be obviously placing bets themselves or giving guys information that is unique to what they know being in our building. Just kind of pounding into them how serious it is.”

Relentless monitoring and messaging are likely deterrents for some. Golden, 37, also coaches a sport with a long history of gambling transgressions.

The point-saving scandal at 1950 NCAA champion CCNY was the first of several, including those at Boston College, Tulane, Arizona State and Northwestern.

While an athlete changing the outcome of a game remains an ephemeral concern, the potential for an exchange of information is continuous.

Napier’s program has dozens of staffers in various roles and also relies heavily on student assistants to help with recruiting. Inside information abound but its supposed to remain in-house.

“Those are the things that are a part of being [on] the team,” Napier said. “Those are conversations that we have as we approach some of the things you’d like to think are understood. But obviously in some situations across the country, it’s not.”

When he became NCAA president March 1, Charlie Baker offered experience, expertise and expectations relative to sports wagering. The former Massachusetts governor signed the state’s sports betting bill into law in August 2022 after years of negotiations.

Soon after Baker’s arrival he commissioned a survey of 18-22-year-olds to determine the prevalence of sports betting among students at NCAA institutions. A more in-depth analysis is planned to gauge the activities of student-athletes.

The survey found 58% have placed at least one sports bet.

“One of the other things I made clear I wanted to pursue in my first 100 days is to put a stake down on sports betting,” Baker said in June during the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Convention in Orlando. “For all intents and purposes, you can pretty much bet on sports from anywhere. The advent of sports betting and the billion-dollar efforts to recruit new customers has huge potential to disrupt college athletics.”

During a conference at the University of Arizona, “The Future of College Sports,” Baker said the NCAA had “a major opportunity to get into the sports betting space.”

Nearly $94 billion was wagered legally on sports in the United States last year, but the balancing act could be tricky.

“Making sure that student-athletes don’t fall victim to problem betting is obviously a vital concern,” he said.

The level of concern is as high as it has ever been, even in states where sports betting remains illegal.

Georgia has yet to legalize it, but four states in the SEC have: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Even so, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart cannot turn on his TV without encountering advertising associated with gambling.

Last fall, a Georgia athlete in an undisclosed sport committed an NCAA gambling violation.

“We’ve had issues with that in the past, too,” Smart said.

An athlete can forfeit his or her eligibility if caught betting on sports. Smart, 47 and a former player at Georgia, is shocked at the current level of betting activity on college campuses.

“There’s like Chinese baseball games and stuff that people are gambling on. It’s like, what?” he said. “They’re betting on horse racing in another country. It’s literally crazy how easy it is and the access they have to it, and then [with] the punishment you have to ask yourself, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy could lose his entire eligibility forever for betting on a horse race in another country?’ ”

Back in Florida, Napier, 43, is well attuned to the habits and hazards at his players’ fingertips. In the continued effort to curb cell phone usage, the rise of sports wagering provides leverage.

“Nowadays, that thing you’ve got in your hand there is the enemy,” he said. “Gets yourself in trouble in all different ways. That’s one of them. Add it to the list.”

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