College football: Don’t pander to bettors

ESPN’s ‘cover alerts’ tie college sports ever closer to gambling.

Joe Mahoney/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP
Ohio State receiver Braxton Miller cannot reach a pass in the end zone as Virginia Tech's Greg Stoman defends during an NCAA college football game in Blacksburg, Va., Sept. 7. Miller scored two touchdowns in Ohio State's 42-24 win.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has made it clear: It wants no part of sports betting. An NCAA campaign called “Don’t Bet on It” warns college athletes about the emotional and financial dangers of betting on games, as well as the damaging effect it can have on their athletic careers.

“The NCAA opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering, which has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student-athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community,” reads a no-nonsense statement on the association’s website.

But the NCAA’s biggest media partner, sports cable channel ESPN, now seems to be dragging college sports further and further into the world of sports betting.

ESPN broadcasts college football games, including the four biggest bowl games and the championship playoff games. It also fills its schedule with shows that preview coming games and analyze results.

More and more, the cable network seems to be shaping its coverage toward fans who are betting on college games. One new practice this season involves cutting away from a game broadcast briefly to return to the ESPN studio for a “cover alert.”

It’s one thing to take a quick break to inform viewers about the scores of other games. But a cover alert is aimed specifically at bettors, who wager money on games based on a point spread system: They win or lose their bet depending on whether a team wins or loses by a certain number of points. A cover alert tells viewers whether a team is “covering the spread.”

ESPN’s college football talk shows have also begun to include more discussion of point spreads and betting strategies. And college football officials are beginning to express their concern.

“I don’t think [the talk about betting and point spreads] are things that ought to be a part of the presentation of college football, but maybe that’s the environment in which we find ourselves,” Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, told USA Today recently. He added that he was “quite sure that all of [the Big 12 universities’ presidents and athletic directors] feel as I do that it’s inappropriate.”

But will the NCAA, or its member conferences or schools, protest to the network? ESPN pays colleges bucket loads of cash to televise football games and is a major promoter of college football as entertainment. Schools may be reluctant to criticize their powerful partner.

A total ban on the occasional mention of a point spread isn’t needed. Even fans who would never think of placing a bet on a game may glance at a point spread to see which team is favored in a coming game, and how strongly.

But college sports should be about teams trying to win games and fans rooting for them to win, not about whether teams can cover their point spread.

Adding cover alerts to broadcasts sends college football out of bounds and in a troubling direction. It crosses a line that needs to be redrawn.

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