(Photo: Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports)
On the heels of a federal judge issuing an injunction on March 7, 2013, that barred New Jersey from allowing sports betting in the midst of an ongoing legal battle between the state and five sports organizations, the NCAA affirmed its stance that the spread of gambling is “a threat to the integrity of athletic competition and student-athlete well-being.”
A lot has changed since then.
Las Vegas has become the de facto hub of college basketball in the week before the NCAA tournament, with four conference tournaments held there (plus another in Reno). The NHL has expanded there. The NFL is on the way.
And now, in perhaps the most interesting stress test for the NCAA’s ban on holding events in states where sports betting is legal, the Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will hear a case that could determine whether the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act is legal.
If New Jersey wins and the federal law is ruled unconstitutional, states could be able to determine for themselves whether to allow sports betting. Which could put the NCAA in an interesting situation.
It’s hard to say how many states would legalize sports betting immediately. If New Jersey and a handful of others opened betting parlors, the NCAA could certainly go on about its business without much interruption — as silly as that might be.
But over time, this is a losing issue for the NCAA, as the NHL and NFL have now tacitly admitted by moving into Las Vegas after going out of their way for years to avoid it. The reality is a large percentage of people who watch sports like to wager on sports and will find ways to do so whether it’s in a casino, online or with their local bookie.
New Jersey isn’t much of a loss for the NCAA. It’s a state with one FBS university (Rutgers) and one facility (the Prudential Center in Newark) that is equipped to host an NCAA basketball tournament. Even at that, the NCAA would rather play in Brooklyn or Manhattan anyway.
But if Florida or Texas or California legalized sports gambling, does it stand to reason that the NCAA would pull its events and ignore those states?
Again, it’s difficult to handicap how the Supreme Court is going to rule on this. Maybe status quo wins out, but on a common-sense level it’s getting more difficult every year to justify the NCAA’s stance on sports betting.
While protecting college athletes from some seedier elements of sports gambling remains a crucial part of its mission — the NCAA conducts a study on the topic every four years to guide its educational efforts — much of the negative perception of Las Vegas is rooted in a different time and place. The famous photograph of UNLV players in a hot tub with Richard “The Fixer” Perry in the early 1990s still resonates.
Still, it’s difficult to reconcile a hard-line stance against holding an NCAA tournament game at the new T-Mobile Arena on The Strip when the Pac-12 holds its tournament there without incident one week earlier. And it’s certainly hard to justify pulling a women’s soccer tournament or an NCAA track and field event out of New Jersey because of some existential gambling threat.
Even NCAA President Mark Emmert hinted at a possible softening of the policy during his annual news conference at the Final Four in April when asked if Las Vegas would be considered for the next round of bidding for the basketball tournament.
“The board has been having active discussions about that issue,” Emmert said. “They have not changed the policy yet. And they won’t be able to do so for this round of bidding. And I’ve communicated this to some of the leadership in Las Vegas. They will not be eligible for this round. Whether or not the board changes its mind before the next round, I can’t say. Obviously there’s a lot of collegiate athletic events going on in Nevada, both regular season and tournament events. And the board’s acutely aware of that, and they’ll be considering it.”
The NCAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. But ultimately, the Supreme Court could be what ends up forcing its hand.