College sports are screwed. They have been on borrowed time for a quite a while now. In fact, it is probably something a miracle that the entire enterprise, not just the NCAA, amateurism, or academic standards still survives, much less thrives, in the form it does now. There is a ticking time bomb that fights about the NCAA and its rules seem to distract everyone from.
Last week I wrote about how college sports might suffer or end should the O’Bannon plaintiffs win their lawsuit against the NCAA. But a lot would have to happen for that, including further legal victories for student-athletes and universities drawing a line in the sand on athletics spending. But the end of college sports through a point shaving or game fixing epidemic seems much more inevitable. Just like Brian Phillips wrote about soccer, college sports is screwed.
For starters, the laws of the many United States cannot do much either way. Ban sports wagering in as many forms and places as possible and it moves to an unregulated market of offshore gambling and local bookies. Legalize it, and fixing games on a large scale becomes easier:
[W]hat’s enabled soccer’s match-fixing problem is not the unregulated shadiness of illegal gambling but the fact that the sheer volume of betting encouraged by legal gambling opens up opportunities to exploit the systems devised to handle it.
This is not an argument about the psychology of “normalization”, where allowing legalized sports wagering starts a nation down a slipperly slope to say it is ok to shave points or fix a prop bet. This is a much more technical argument, that more wagering in more places makes it easier to hide what you are doing from the casinos, regulators, and law enforcement.
There are aready plenty of places to place bets on college sports, but they rely on hoping you get your money back from an offshore account or from a bookie. That will be good enough for international syndicates. Large scale domestic gambling rings would probably rather have the reassurance that if they win and are not caught, they also do not have to worry about getting the money.
This is not just a college sports problem, just like match fixing is not exclusively an Asian soccer problem. But college sports is the softest target. More games, many under the radar, involving athletes that will be more vulnerable to people offering some easy money. Not even the strongest pay-for-play advocates are proposing paying athletes so much that a criminal organization cannot make throwing a game worth their while. Especially if college sports continues to have a large group of participants who will not make a living as professional athletes.
So what would an epidemic of fixed games and shaved points look like in college sports? Declan Hill, the Canadian journalist who has been most on top of soccer’s match fixing issues, estimates that 1–5% of games are being manipulated each week. Split the difference and say 3%. That would mean one or two FBS football games being manipulated each and every week. Or up to 10 Division I men’s basketball games.
Point shaving and fixing games is so infrequent in America now that it is not a real concern. It is something that might be in the back of people’s minds but does not affect how they watch the games. But as a weekly occurance, it ruins the game. Every fan who pays for a seat or donates money watches each game wondering if this week, their team will be the one involved.
One more quote from Phillips’ piece:
You can still have sports if players are cheating. You can still have sports if fans are fighting in the parking lot. Those are problems, big problems, but they can be addressed without threatening the basic concept of the game. When the outcomes of matches are being dictated from the outside, though? You no longer have a game at that point. You have something else, a weird simulacrum, pro wrestling without the feather boas. (And, almost as crucially, without the fun.) The essential idea of athletic competition — let’s both show up and try to win — is no longer operating.
College sports has to serve many masters at this point. It is expected to be an academic exercise. It is expected to entertain and attract alumni. It is expected to develop athletes for the professional leagues. And it is expected to fund itself, more and more every day.
Large scale manipulation of games hurts all these things. Alumni stop paying attention and the money dries up. Professional leagues look elsewhere for players not tainted by scandals. And eventually colleges decide they cannot continue to subsidize and support this anymore.