The NCAA Is Concerned About Sports Betting; Good Luck With That

Powered by the latest freakouts on sports gambling, the NCAA is attacking the problem at its most distant offshoot: prop bets. Specifically, its high prefect of policy Charlie Baker is calling for those states with legalized college prop wagering to stop offering props on college games as a response to the Jontay Porter scandalette. I think we all know how this plays out: the gambling industry, the states involved, and especially the people who actually run college sports rise as one and say, “Who’s Charlie Baker?”

Baker is reduced here to asking politely, given that the NCAA has been denuded of even its minimal influence on college football, and it’d only take three or four meetings to get the SEC, Big Ten, and whoever else wants to pile on to seize college basketball. And since the gambling industry has never been more normalized by the sports that once pretend-condemned it, Baker’s whistling in this particular graveyard is mostly wistful. Regulation? Turning down money? Giving up control to the organization you’ve spent so much time undermining? Saying no to DraftKings? What kind of neo-Stalinist jackbootery is this?

The gambling industry, or Big Parlay if you need a codename, goes to a lot of trouble to create all these avenues for action, and maintains a fairly vigilant policing wing for potential out-of-pocket sleazery. That will be its argument—the NCAA is asking for unnecessary government bureaucracy to replace the wild west on crank that currently exists, where the people who police gambling behavior are of course the people who encourage gambling behavior. No rules are rules too, after all, and the odd effort-shaving rogue isn’t worth preventing a single dime from reaching its ultimate destination. If you have to ask what that destination is, you either don’t gamble or do gamble and don’t want to know what a losers’ game prop betting is for all but the most careful dabblers.

A prop betting ban is also the smallest kind of liability the industry frets about, as those who remember the Arizona State and Northwestern point-shaving scandals 30 years ago remind us. Even the Shohei Ohtani betting slap’n’tickle is an outlier because it’s much more about the three prongs of scandal—someone with too much money and time and not enough sense, the perils of wire fraud, and not linking the PR people with the legal people ahead of time.

This isn’t even about the evils of gambling—you make up your own minds about that, and stop leafleting our cars. This is about Baker pretending he and his organization are still players in this or any college athletics discussion because that job has been seized by the people who don’t like mall cops getting in the way of their unlimited prerogatives, and the people who run college sports now are located in states that don’t like regulations. It’s America in a nutshell, and Charlie Baker, bless his feeble conscience, is at this point the equivalent of the Holy Roman Emperor trying to broker a nuclear proliferation treaty: way too late. 

In other words, if there is going to be (and we like the idea of brokering this particular word construction) Meaningful Prop Reform, it won’t be coming from Chucky and the mailroom in Indianapolis. It will require a major betting coup in a big event—you know, a tournament semifinal, the Michigan–Ohio State football game, the Avocados From Mexico Cure Bowl: something important to the SEC or Big Ten. Everyone hates rules until they get the chance to make them.

This is not that moment, and Charlie Baker is not that messenger. Good for him for trying, but let’s face it, the only people capable of pulling this off are the people in power looking to follow their consciences and go against the preponderance of the money. We’ll wait for you to provide us with names.

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