Southern Miss athletic director Jon Gilbert’s grasp on the issue of sports gambling took on a new level of concern years ago when he sat in on a lecture given by Michael Franzese, a former capo in the Colombo crime family.
“As Franzese kept talking, I’m thinking, ‘Man, this is kind of a secret underground thing that takes place,’” Gilbert said. “Here we are 20-30 years later and it’s at our doorstep and has rung the doorbell and is coming through the door. We all need to prepare for it.”
Characters like Franzese know all too well how sports betting can have a negative impact on sports — both college and professional. He told HBO in 2002 that he conspired with New York Yankees players to fix games in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Delaware and New Jersey recently joined Nevada in allowing sports wagers after the Supreme Court struck down a federal law on May 14 that prohibited sports betting in most states. Mississippi is soon to join those three states with its 28 casinos in prime position to benefit.
The legalization of sports betting will have an impact across the board in college athletics, but the challenge will be unique for a school like Southern Miss. Sports betting will take place within an 80-minute drive of the USM’s Hattiesburg campus, leaving the school’s athletic department to ponder the impact on its student athletes.
Sports betting will ramp up this football season across the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which features 12 casinos. Legal wagers can only be made inside casinos — at betting stations, kiosks or through an on-site computerized system.
The Mississippi Gaming Commission made July 21 the date to allow betting at the state’s casinos, but wagers likely won’t take place in the state until early August.
On their own
From the 1919 Black Sox Scandal to the 1994 Arizona State point-shaving scandal, there’s a lengthy history of gamblers trying to make extra cash by persuading athletes to tilt outcomes in their favor.
Gilbert doesn’t expect the NCAA to handle the sports betting issue on a national level early on, with most states still debating the topic. That puts more pressure on college administrators across the state to come up with their own plans. Gilbert and other athletic officials in Mississippi have had informal discussions on the matter, but there’s still much to be decided and learned in the coming months and years.
Gilbert sees a three-prong approach in the early going:
1. Education — “We’ve got to be mindful and do a good job of educating our student-athletes. We’ve got to educate our coaches, educate our staff. Largely, we have to educate the university community.”
2. Vigilance — “We have to be there every day. We’ve got to be mindful of what the risks are and know that vigilance is going to be important.”
3. Presence from administration — “It’s being visible, being compliant and making sure our compliance office and myself are ringing that bell every day of how important it is to be compliant and keep the integrity of the game intact.”
Southern Miss and other schools in the Gulf Coast region will have to draw on the experiences of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and other programs that have had to navigate college athletics while also dealing with legal sports betting nearby.
Gilbert, who served previously as the No. 2 administrator in the Tennessee athletic department, sees the close proximity to the Coast casinos as a potential blessing.
“Obviously, everyone thinks, ‘Hey, it’s close so student-athletes and coaches can get there,’ but I also look at it as a positive,” Gilbert said. “We’ve got to protect the integrity of the game. By the proximity, there’s the ability for us as an institution to develop a relationship with the people that are managing that on the Coast as it relates to us. There are some relationships we need to build with that group to help protect the integrity of our athletic contests.”
Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey also believes that the closeness of the casinos could play to USM’s benefit.
“Before May 13, it was illegal to bet on games. They’ll now be going going into a casino to place a wager,” Godfrey said. “Those (casino) operators are extremely concerned about the integrity of their business.”
With 28 casinos in operation across the state, Godfrey believes the increased regulation will benefit all of Mississippi’s schools.
“Sports betting has been going on illegally for many, many years,” he said. “There are colleges in Nevada and they’re allowed to gamble on games. I don’t think they’ve experienced issues. I don’t know what to expect, but I don’t expect a wave of corruption. I’d like to think that there will be 28 additional eyes on the events that are taking place. If something looks out of norm, we would contact the leagues.”
Witness to the fallout
If you go through the list of betting scandals that have taken place in college sports, men’s basketball appears to be the most vulnerable.
USM basketball coach Doc Sadler is very familiar with how one hoops program paid the price for the transgressions of a small group of players.
He arrived at Arizona State as an assistant for head coach Bill Frieder in August of 1994, a year after a point-shaving scheme that eventually earned jail time for a pair of ASU players — Stevin “Hedake” Smith and Isaac Burton. The FBI became involved in the investigation and the two players admitted to taking bribes and fixing four games.
Sadler was initially set to sit down for an interview with investigators before it was realized that he had arrived after the point shaving took place.
“You talk about a scary deal,” he said. “I was down at the FBI (office) in Phoenix and they started asking me questions. They said, ‘You’re name ain’t on here. Were you here during the point shaving?’ I said, ‘No, I came in August.’ They told me there was no need me for me to do an interview and I got out of that building so fast.”
By 1997, Arizona State decided to fire Frieder and the rest of his staff. Sadler is confident that their termination was directly a result of the FBI probe and the fallout.
“It was negative publicity and they just wanted to distance themselves from us,” said Sadler, who is entering his fifth year as the USM head coach.
The scandal at Arizona State is in Sadler’s rear view, but he still draws on it on occasion as he warns his players about the dangers surrounding gambling.
“I’ve talked to them every year, not just about that in itself, but all kinds of social issues,” he said. “I think all of us are a little naive to think that crazy stuff isn’t still going on. To me, this is just going to be another pressure that’s put on kids.”
With sports wagering on the rise, college administrators will have to identify areas where student-athletes are at their most vulnerable. Whether it’s in the classroom, in a frat house or hanging out with friends and relatives in their hometown, the potential for outside influence is always a possibility.
“I think (the risk is) wherever they’re at,” Sadler said. “Let’s be real. The amount of money that’s gambled on sporting events, legally and illegally, is probably the most of anything. With it being legal, it’s going to be interesting. Gambling is huge. That’s just the way it is.
“I think we do the same thing we’ve been doing. We talk about it.”