The Final Four of NCAA men's basketball is the nation's fourth-largest gambling event. And the bigger it gets, the more the NCAA tries to counteract the potential bad effects of all this wagering on its "scholar-athletes."
Public interest in NCAA basketball largely centers on informal contests among family, friends, and colleagues to guess the winners by filling out a chart for the 63 games. This "bracketology," as it's called, easily slips into making bets. For many people, it also leads to big financial losses or a spiral into gambling addiction. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the number of games in the NCAA tournament.]
The NCAA knows that gambling is corrupting its big sports, or at least its image. A 2004 poll found 35 percent of male college athletes and 10 percent of female athletes gambled on college or pro sports events. Another poll, done last year by New Jersey-based Seton Hall University, found that about one-fifth of Americans believed college basketball players intentionally influenced the outcome of games because of gambling interests.
Yet despite such worrisome figures, the association has become overcommercialized, such as signing a $6 billion contract with CBS, the biggest single sports deal in history. The basketball finals are now a major media event, earning so much money that critics say the NCAA and its more than 1,000 members are exploiting students.
To its credit, the NCAA enforces its rules well with member schools, and recently it set up a website (www.dontbetonit.org) to warn both players and the public about the dangers of gambling on NCAA games. The site includes testimony from convicted offenders.
To prevent the players from gambling, the NCAA even brought in the FBI to speak to its top basketball teams. And it is taking a new national survey of its student-athletes to estimate how many are betting on games, taking bribes to influence a game, or revealing information about their teams to professional bookies.
The organization has had some success in making sure more athletes actually keep up their studies and graduate from college, although the record remains much better for whites than for blacks.
The NCAA needs to keep reminding its colleges, the public – and itself – that the primary purpose of school sports is educational.
Fortunately, colleges or students wanting to opt out of the NCAA "madness" can find a nice contrast in the much smaller National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
That 282-member group has recently been promoting itself as the "anti-NCAA" with a "character" program for its intercollegiate athletics. Both fans and athletes are taught how to behave at games and afterward, while colleges purposely try not to turn games into money-driven entertainment. In its seminars for coaches and athletes, NAIA also emphasizes the values of sports – such as leadership and responsibility – unlike the NCAA's primary emphasis on winning – and earnings.
Gambling can find little foothold in sports run with educational values at the forefront. And colleges that put the interests of athletes first will find they are less addicted to royalties from TV contracts.
As the NCAA tries to curb gambling among its players, it should also try to reduce the commercial incentives that help drive such gambling.