Saving the merit in March Madness from gambling

As more states rush to legalize sports betting, college athletics are pleading for help against gambling’s influence. Schools need to buckle down on their values of meretricious achievement.

Gamblers place bets on the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City N.J. This is the first March Madness tournament since legal gambling expanded last year in the U.S.

In this year’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, the quality of play on the court is as high as ever. But that is not stopping many more sports fans from viewing the matchups as mostly games of chance.

According to NCAA President Mark Emmert, the educational merit from such contests of skill and teamwork is facing a serious challenge from the rapid rise in legal gambling not only on the games but also on their unpaid amateur athletes.

“Sports wagering is going to have a dramatic impact on everything we do in college sports,” he says. “It’s going to threaten the integrity of college sports in many ways unless we are willing to act boldly and strongly.”

Colleges in the United States are already under suspicion after a recent admissions scandal that revealed some elite schools had disregarded academic merit in student applicants. That concern over institutional integrity, however, is largely an internal problem. College sports faces outside pressure because nearly half of state governments are rushing to legalize sports gambling.

The rush began last May after the Supreme Court ruled the federal government could not ban states from authorizing sports gambling. With eight states now allowing such betting, experts predict 39 in all will be on board by the end of 2023.

Last year, an estimated 1 in 5 adults placed bets totaling an estimated $10 billion during March Madness, most of them illegal. The number of gamblers as well the money waged is now rising as more states not only make such gambling easier and legal but also promote it to boost tax revenues.

In response, the NCAA has set up a new committee to track the effects of legalized gambling on college sports. News media have also taken notice. Both CBS’s “60 Minutes” and Showtime recently documented the potential threat. In many college athletic programs, players are being trained how not to be tempted by a bribe from organized crime to alter the course of a game.

For the NCAA chief, the real threat is to the purpose of education. “It’s pretty simple,” Mr. Emmert said. “We have to lead with our values.”

Those values, as reflected in polling of Americans, include a belief that people are rewarded – and should be – for their intelligence and skill. Notions of “luck,” as philosopher Steven Hales of Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania points out based on new research, may be “no more than a subjective point of view taken on certain events, not a genuine property in the world that we discover.”

In past years during the three weeks of March Madness, the number of callers to the National Problem Gambling Helpline rose an average of 40 percent. Many sports gamblers acknowledge they have a problem. Now the NCAA and its larger educational community is asking for help. The answer lies in how well schools of higher education stick to values based on objective merit and on their ability to fend off pressure from those who operate by subjective hunches about luck.

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