Can Colleges Police Sports Betting? Some Are Trying

In Mississippi, university officials sent state gambling regulators names for a “watch list” for big bets. Iowa colleges have simply kept teaching their athletes longstanding, narrowly applied rules on sports wagering. And in Indiana and Pennsylvania, some universities flatly banned students and employees from betting on their school’s athletics events. 

The rapid spread of legalized sports betting, made possible by a United States Supreme Court ruling last year, is prompting colleges and universities to grapple quickly with whether they can, or should, control a lawful activity so explicitly linked to the performances of their students.

But as more states have allowed bets and as wagers have soared — there were more than $730 million in sports bets in August, more than double the amount from a year earlier — there is no consensus among universities about how they should respond. And it is unclear whether the initial reactions will stave off any problems that critics fear might come from bets on everything from bowl games to March Madness brackets.

“Because these are fuzzy questions, and they’re new questions, we’re not asserting that we’ve got it tacked down in all particulars,” Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president, said in an interview as university officials labored this month over the precise wording of their new policy.

At its release on Friday, it proved to be among the country’s most stringent: a sweeping prohibition on betting on Boilermakers athletics by students, employees and contractors of the public university in West Lafayette, Ind.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has long restricted many people connected to college sports, including players, coaches and organizers, from placing sports wagers or looking to profit from fantasy leagues or basketball tournament pools. Student-athletes, seen as especially vulnerable to manipulation because of their accessibility, age and typically limited financial resources, have been warned for years that they could lose their opportunities to play if they are tied to gambling.

As recently as August, with the landscape of legalized betting evolving by the month, the N.C.A.A’s Board of Governors “reaffirmed its support” of its existing rules.

But because those bylaws — which almost a quarter of male athletes defied, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the N.C.A.A. — do not apply to every student or university employee, individual campuses have been moved to make their own rules to keep up with fast-changing circumstances in their states.

Consider St. Joseph’s, a Jesuit university in Philadelphia that sits, as its athletic director put it recently, in a “Bermuda triangle of gambling,” with Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey all allowing sports betting.

“Everyone has a different policy because everyone has a different state law,” the athletic director, Jill Bodensteiner, said.

Some universities said that they had made no substantive changes since the Supreme Court’s decision and instead remained focused on teaching the N.C.A.A.’s standards that forbid sports wagers of any kind.

“At this time, the university does not plan on drafting new rules or regulations,” Anne Bassett, a spokeswoman for Iowa, said in an email last week, about two months after legal sports betting started in the state. Similarly, a spokeswoman for Penn State, Lisa Powers, said the university had “no plans” for a Purdue-style ban, but had beefed up its educational outreach.

“Concerns and risks associated with wagering on intercollegiate athletics have existed for many years, though the new Pennsylvania law, which we opposed, magnifies the risks and justifies our augmented outreach efforts,” said Powers, who noted that Penn State was considering using a monitoring service to detect troubling betting patterns.

Other colleges have already felt compelled to act forcefully. Major universities in Mississippi, a bastion of gambling in the South for decades but a newcomer to legalized sports wagers, took a series of steps (some overt, others more subtle) last year to deter misconduct.

Sid Salter of Mississippi State said that schools coordinated “an extensive education and public awareness campaign” for students, employees and fans “to make sure everyone was aware of essential compliance issues.”

State officials said that last fall, the schools went further, arranging through the Mississippi Gaming Commission to learn if their athletes or coaches won large sums or placed substantial bets at casinos.

Of the universities that took specific actions in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Murphy v. N.C.A.A., many opted for internal policies that threatened discipline, sometimes left space for interpretation and seemed, to supporters and critics alike, difficult to enforce.

In Arkansas, the state university system approved a policy that barred employees and students who were “directly associated with a team, student-athlete or other participant” in a sporting event from placing bets in some instances. Students could be suspended for violating the policy, and employees could be fired.

But the university system did not define a “direct” association, and Nate Hinkel, a spokesman, said it was “evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

Some universities adopted a harder line, drawing interest — and some skepticism, too — from other administrators.

Villanova, the Philadelphia university that is home to one of the country’s elite men’s basketball programs, moved last November to forbid employees and students from gambling on athletic events involving the school’s teams. At the time, the university said its aim was to “strike the necessary balance” between the state’s regulations and the N.C.A.A.’s rules.

Nearby St. Joseph’s later prepared an interim policy that barred students, employees, trustees and contractors from placing “an otherwise legal sports wager” on any team, event or person affiliated with the athletic department. Bodensteiner, who said no one had been punished under the policy, said she had been especially concerned about overwhelming student-athletes.

“These young men and women are under so much pressure as it is,” Bodensteiner said. “Now they’ve got a roommate or a professor or a counselor at the counseling center betting on them?”

Purdue now appears to be the first public university to have pursued a policy as unambiguous as private institutions. Daniels, the university president, said that “unease” had led trustees to act in the first weeks of legalized sports betting in Indiana.

“It just did not feel consistent with a value set that we think we hold onto here,” Daniels said.

When the formal policy was released on Friday, Purdue said restrictions on betting would, among other benefits, shield people from “any inference of profiteering from inside information, exercising undue influence or other improper conduct.”

Indiana lawmakers previously rebuffed pleas that college events be off-limits for gambling. Senator Mark Messmer, a Republican who sponsored Indiana’s sports betting law, said he regarded Purdue’s policy as “a very limited end run but with very limited ability to ever enforce it.”

“It seems to me like more of a symbolic attempt from the Board of Trustees to make a statement to their faculty and students that they don’t want to see it happen,” said Messmer, a Purdue alumnus who doubted that regulators or casinos would ever make investigative data available to the university. “I don’t see it being a big infringement on the sports betting world.”

Daniels, a Republican former governor whose state recorded $35 million in sports wagers in its first month of betting, acknowledged that enforcement would be difficult.

“We’re not going to set up a secret police to run around and try to find out,” he said. “A lot of policies here are undoubtedly being breached on a frequent basis. It doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant to have them as statements of principle, maybe of values. When we find a violation, we act on it.”

Whether the decision by Purdue, the first Power 5 school to act so aggressively, will ultimately be copied at other universities with influential sports programs is unclear. (The Big Ten, with members in five states that have, or will soon have, some form of sports gambling, declined to comment on any conference-wide plans.)

And that may be, college officials said, because of the inherent uncertainty around the subject. In statements and interviews, university after university attached caveats like “at this time.”

Bodensteiner planned to attend a campus forum on Tuesday as St. Joseph’s contemplates whether it should adjust its thinking to allow, say, bets on the Hawks if the university’s basketball team reaches the N.C.A.A. tournament.

“Sometimes, higher education is not known for a being a really fluid environment,” she said. “But this is one where we have to stray abreast of the issues and be willing to learn and correct, if needed.”