On December 20, 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill legalizing sports betting when run by licensed casinos in the state of Michigan. Here, the legal age for some casinos is 18, although Detroit area casinos such as MGM, Motor City, and Greektown require sports bettors to be 21. The bill was signed just before the start of March Madness, an event that brings countless opportunities to gamble and bet on various teams and bracket selections.
Although not a sports bettor myself, the annual tradition of crafting a March Madness bracket is something near and dear to my heart. As a student over the age of 18, I am legally allowed to bet on college and professional sports through online sports betting. I can risk my pocket change on Duke, Villanova, and Seton Hall in anything from a casual bracket pool with friends to an online forum with thousands of bettors. Our student-athletes, however, cannot.
According to NCAA rules, student-athletes cannot “bet on any sport sponsored by the NCAA at any level, including college and/or professional,” or “share information for sports wagering purposes.” Students who violate these rules may be deemed ineligible for competition and suspended from the team (44). Incidentally, this ban also applies to the staff of an institution’s athletics department or conference office, and the chancellor or president of a collegiate athletics program or university with NCAA athletes.
Most of this regulation comes from concerns about the mental and financial health of student-athletes. Gambling can be addictive, and the website collegegambling.org claims that “both student-athletes and students who are sports fans gamble more than other students,” evidently sometimes in violation of NCAA policy. 24% of male and 5% of female student-athletes reported being sports bettors last year according to the NCAA which is ironic considering it’s completely banned in the bylaws.
Some Michigan student-athletes argue that the NCAA’s ban on wagering money on sports is nonsensical. One female athlete recently told me that “placing interest on specific sports teams should be allowed for athletes, and even seems natural.” If you’re a trained student-athlete, you understand the gravity of gambling on professional or collegiate athletics better than laypeople; sports betting “encourages athletes to look beyond their level of competition,” the female student-athlete said, and study the success of professional sports teams. If anyone is most properly informed about how a team should perform, it’s an athlete who plays the same sport and understands its rules.
What’s even more absurd is that the NCAA reported only 1.9% of male and 0.2% of female student-athletes exhibiting some clinical signs of gambling addiction. 3-8% of all college students are addicted to gambling and sports betting, higher than student-athlete addiction rates. 29% of student-athletes are violating NCAA bylaws and engaging in sports betting, and about 2% are developing problems. The NCAA itself reported that 54% of male and 29% of female student-athletes believe sports betting is a harmless pastime. What right does the NCAA have to be so restrictive of personal financial choices?
Of course, student-athletes should not be able to bet on or against their own team. I think a reasonable restriction is prohibiting teams from betting on their specific sport, at the collegiate level only. Things would get complicated if Michigan football players could bet on the Ohio State University-Michigan game; they’d have the incentive to change the way they play based on how they wager. Provided all bets are on different athletic teams, though, I see sports wagering for student-athletes as a completely ethical pastime.
Gambling can be addictive. So are cigarettes, painkillers, and chicken tenders from the South Quad dining hall. However, it is unreasonable to ban student-athletes from participating in casual wagers on sports during this upcoming March Madness season. The 29% of student-athletes who were sports bettors last year, in violation of NCAA policy, are a testament to the ridiculousness of the NCAA ban on sports betting.