Why the NCAA crusade against college player prop bets is the right cause at the right time

Faced with epochal change and a barrage of lawsuits, the NCAA needs to find a win somewhere, anywhere.

“We need to put some points on the board,” as NCAA president Charlie Baker put it at the Final Four on Monday, before Connecticut smoked Purdue 75-60 on its way to a second straight national title.

Baker’s decision, announced during the first week of the NCAA tournament, to push for a ban on prop betting on college player performances, has the potential to be a big winner. At a time when the NCAA feels increasingly marginalized, this is in its wheelhouse, whether that means lobbying state legislatures or online sportsbooks.

As legalized sports wagering becomes increasingly common across the United States, the ability to bet on the performances of college players — points, rebounds, hits, etc. — has emerged as a critical pinch point that touches on issues of enforcement, corruption and abuse. Some states ban props on college players. Most do not.

“We’re in the top of the first inning on this,” Baker said. “We recognize it’s an important issue we need to take seriously.”

The argument against banning player props is that people will just place them illegally, removing the opportunity to monitor and surveil the wagering activity. And that’s one of the primary arguments for legalizing sports gambling, period. There is merit to that.

But there’s a huge difference between a player prop being just another click in an open iPhone app and having to seek out those wagers specifically. So much of the new online gambling era is predicated on the ease of it. People who wouldn’t gamble with an offshore or illegal site are betting player props because they’re right there. Raise the barrier to entry, and the problem might just solve itself.

In Pennsylvania, where N.C. State opened the NCAA tournament, sports gambling is legal but college player props are not. It was weird hearing people back home talk about betting on D.J. Burns’ points when it wasn’t even on the radar up there. (And it’s not a state opposed to instant gratification: Pennsylvania has live online casino gambling, if you feel like playing a few hands of blackjack during the long ride in from the airport.)

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot in particular talked about the abuse he had received from gamblers who lost bets based on a rebound or two, and the NCAA employs a monitoring service that works with social-media platforms to track down and block serial abusers, and when necessary, refer them to law enforcement.

“That’s happened in a few instances,” Baker said.

Then there’s the financial issue. College players aren’t paid, yet. Unlike pro athletes, they wouldn’t be risking million-dollar contracts if they were to get hinky with rebounds or miss a few shots late in a blowout. Fixing a prop bet can be relatively easy and hard to trace, especially if you have nothing to lose. (And even one boneheaded NBA player is alleged to have done so.)

Baker noted that the discussion around Caitlin Clark at the Women’s Final Four, on newly renewed NCAA rightsholder ESPN, included extensive discussion of prop bets around the Iowa star’s scoring totals, which isn’t the discussion the NCAA wants to hear during a tournament that set ratings records because of Clark’s star power and South Carolina’s undefeated season.

“Is that really what we should be talking about in the middle of the Women’s Final Four?” Baker said. “My answer is no.”

He’s right: The gambling discussion that has saturated coverage of all sports is regrettable but probably inevitable. But there are lines to be drawn, and on this specific issue, the NCAA is trying to draw the right one.

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