Sports leagues stand pat as legal gambling spreads

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The major professional sports leagues and the NCAA have jumped into their first full seasons with expanded legal sports betting by taking a largely wait-and-see approach, leaving teams, players, trainers and officials on their own to figure out how best to navigate an evolving landscape in which their inside information is as valuable as ever.

An estimated $150 billion trades hands between bettors, local bookies, offshore gambling sites and legal Nevada sports books annually. Since the earliest days of the industry, bettors and oddsmakers have hunted inside information to gain an edge. Prior to the internet, gamblers sent minions to the Las Vegas airport to retrieve out-of-town newspapers from travelers to browse for information on teams, handicappers phoned college sports information offices under the guise of being reporters to check on an injured player's availability, and in some cases, gamblers hired private investigators to follow NBA referees and developed relationships with players and coaches.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that struck down the federal ban on state-allowed sports betting, four states (Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia) have opened legal sportsbooks. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island could follow by year's end, and at least five additional states are likely to pass legislation legalizing sports betting next year. By 2022, gambling industry analysts expect that more than half the states will be offering sports betting.

The Supreme Court case covered just the legality; left undetermined was how governing bodies, leagues and teams should deal with regulating the industry. Without federal oversight, pro and college sports officials have been left to figure out regulations on their own as they lobby to have a say in state regulations. Some state legislatures have tried to address the issue of transparency concerning inside information, including New Jersey, which prohibited anyone with "access to certain types of exclusive information" from participating in sports betting on their respective sport.

"You are certainly going to see an explosion in the exposure of our athletes, umpires, official scorers, clubhouse attendants to sports betting,'' said Bryan Seeley, Major League Baseball's senior vice president and deputy counsel. "So there is going to be a lot more opportunity and temptation, particularly in the area of inside information. We're going to have a lot more in terms of education and making sure people down the line understand our rules and the pitfalls."

Nowhere is the concern greater than on college campuses: Betting on college sports already is responsible for close to a third of the sports betting handle in Nevada. The NCAA and college administrators were among the loudest voices against legalizing sports wagering, in part because collegiate athletics has traditionally proven the most susceptible to corruption scandals, whether it's players directly impacting the outcome of games or insiders providing insightful game-related information. Of the nine major gambling scandals in the past 25 years, seven have involved college athletes.

"You can bet there is going to be a scandal on some college campus," said former basketball star and U.S. congressman Tom McMillen, who represents the NCAA Division I athletic directors as president of Lead1 Association. "These kids are more vulnerable. They're not making millions of dollars. They live in dorms. Information is more freely accessible. Now, listen, there are lots of things that can be done to manage it. And you can't stick your head in the sand, but it is going to cost money. And the universities have enormous risk here, no question about it."

For now, sports leaders are largely relying on past practices as they ponder how best to navigate potentially enormous changes in the gambling landscape.


  • The NCAA is studying gambling-related issues, including implementing a national injury report for sports on which money is wagered, though the college football season kicked off without a single new rule or NCAA recommendation to member institutions.

  • Major League Baseball is on the cusp of the postseason, but officials say a decision on transparency upgrades such as injury reports, posting of lineups and umpire assignments will wait until the 2019 season.

  • The National Football League's injury-reporting policies remain unchanged and are still the most comprehensive in pro sports, though widespread fudging is also suspected, and fines are rarely levied for failure to disclose an injury.

  • The National Hockey League will open another season next month without a policy addressing player availability, though when injuries occur in-game, a team spokesperson is required to notify the media of the approximate injury location, nature and severity -- unless the club determines that such disclosure could jeopardize the player's physical well-being upon his return, and then it can provide a more general overview.

  • The National Basketball Association is standing by its current injury-reporting policy as players report to training camp, though the face of the league -- LeBron James -- claimed to have played the majority of the NBA Finals last June with a significant hand injury. The information, which surely would have altered betting odds, was never shared with the public through a media release or an injury or availability report.

Coaches, administrators and officials generally agree that more transparency is needed to mitigate the risk of unscrupulous characters seeking gambling-friendly insight, but a deep divide exists about what transparency even looks like.

That philosophical divide is no better illustrated than in the divergent approaches at Marshall University and the University of Mississippi, each located in a state that recently legalized sports gambling. Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said the football program doesn't issue a weekly injury report, believing that doing so would be akin to turning over trade secrets to opposing teams. At Ole Miss, athletic director Ross Bjork said a weekly "roster update'' is provided by football coach Matt Luke in media sessions, suggesting that the sharing of information helps ease the "risk of people trying to get information in other ways, trying to infiltrate our program, if you will, or trying to get access to a trainer or an equipment manager or obviously a student-athlete directly: 'Hey, tell us who practiced today? Who's limping around? Who was in the training room getting treatment?'"

Mark Phillips, a founder of Global Sports Integrity, an international consulting firm that monitors sports corruption, said the injury report idea for all sports entities should be a priority among other concerns: "Inside information regarding injuries and team lineups is so valuable, especially around players in key positions. I believe all teams should provide an injury report every day via their website or social media. Get the info in the public domain ASAP so it can't be leaked."

On a Friday in mid-July, tucked inside a banquet room at a downtown Cleveland hotel, a veteran Las Vegas bookmaker addressed a national conference of state legislators weighing the virtues of legalized sports betting. The room was full. Representatives for Major League Baseball and the NBA, along with the players' unions from the four major professional sports leagues, were also in the audience.

"The NBA Finals were a month ago. Can somebody shed light on this for me?" asked Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports at Station Casinos and a 40-year Las Vegas bookmaker. "Did LeBron James play the final three games of the NBA Finals with a broken hand? I'm still trying to figure that out."

An awkward silence ensued because it's an awkward topic at the heart of the disconnect about what transparency from teams and leagues looks like. It's a case study in what many perceive as a transparency disparity: That the world's best basketball player could sustain an injury to his shooting hand in the NBA Finals -- an injury serious enough to have required two MRIs, followed by a diagnosis of a deep bone contusion -- and not have it listed on any injury report.

Moments after the Golden State Warriors completed their series sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, James, with his hand wrapped in a soft cast, told the media he "pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand." ESPN later reported that James had undergone two MRIs during the series and had worn a soft cast when he wasn't practicing, playing or in view of the media. USA Today reported that his teammates and coaches knew what had happened. So, too, presumably did the medical staff and trainers, technicians administering the MRIs and possibly a wide sphere of family and friends.

NBA policy, adopted ahead of the 2014-15 season, requires only that teams list players pregame as probable, questionable, doubtful or out, whether due to injury, illness, resting or personal matters. Teams are to email the report to the league office by 5 p.m. the day before a game. In turn, the information becomes public when it is sent to media covering the team and included in the team's game notes, which are posted on the team's website.

Because there was never a question of whether James would play in the last three games, the Cavaliers followed protocol and didn't list his name on reports filed with the league office. An NBA spokesman said, "Beyond the required reporting of a player's availability to play, neither team reported any additional player injuries during the NBA Finals."

Bookmakers in Vegas and gamblers were likewise in the dark about the invaluable information.

Exactly why the James example resonates isn't because anything untoward is suspected. In fact, bookmakers didn't detect any irregularities in betting patterns on the NBA Finals, either on the games themselves or the over and under game totals. While James didn't come close to replicating his 51-point performance in the Game 1 loss, he played at an extremely high level throughout the series, though ESPN Stats & Information found that he took fewer outside shots as the series played out and made them at a lower frequency (7-of-16 from the field in Game 1 from 10 feet and beyond vs. 5-of-19; average shot distance went from 12.6 feet in Game 1 to 10 feet in Game 2, 9 feet in Game 3 and 4.7 feet in Game 4).

Instead, the issue was the hidden injury and its potential implications for bettors and bookmakers and anyone around James who knew of his status.

Had he known of the injury, Jeff Sherman, assistant manager and head NBA oddsmaker for the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, said he would not have used James in any proposition bets and would have tweaked prop bets on other players in the series. The veteran oddsmaker added, "It would've affected the line just a little bit, considering he was out there playing but not 100 percent.''

On Sept. 6, Dan Spillane, NBA senior vice president and assistant general counsel was asked about James' injury while on a panel at a sports-wagering symposium: "I actually don't know what [the] status of his injury was," Spillane said. "What I do know is that he played the whole series and had a pretty good series. And, so, I'm not sure what kind of disclosure rule would have required that necessarily [for the injury to be reported] ... I'm not sure what rule would have covered that situation and would have been a good rule, too."

Spillane told ESPN that officials are reviewing gambling developments and league policies.

"It is something that I would say we are certainly taking a fresh look at in light of the spread of legal betting,'' he said. "We also think that what we got is pretty sensible right now and in line with or more than you see from other leagues. So I don't see that there is anything broken from what we have right now, but we are always looking to improve."

Tory Lindley is the voice of his profession and worries that athletic trainers are the forgotten ones in the talk about transparency. The president of the 45,000-member National Athletic Trainers Association (20 percent are employed by colleges) is quick to highlight the pressure borne by trainers: first to keep players healthy and second as targets of gamblers because of the valuable information trainers possess about athletes' mental and physical well-being.

A 2014 study conducted by three Troy University professors found that more than 8 percent of the Division I trainers who responded to the survey acknowledged knowing of a trainer on their staff who had been contacted by an outside source seeking inside information on an athlete or team.

"I think that number seems on par or maybe a little bit low," said Lindley, associate athletic director and head trainer at Northwestern University. "I would have said 25 percent. Or maybe a fifth to a quarter have been in some way shape or form, directly or indirectly, contacted. I believe it is only going to increase."

The study, published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, also found:

  • 8.5 percent knew of trainers at other institutions who had been contacted for insider information.

  • 1.8 percent suspected they themselves had unknowingly provided such information to an outside source.

  • 72.2 percent engaged in gambling activity in the prior 12 months (Note: NCAA rules prohibit athletes, administrators and staff from gambling, either pro or college, on any of the 24 sports it oversees).

  • Of those who had gambled, 15 percent placed a monetary bet on a professional and/or collegiate sport, with slightly more than half wagering on college sports (7.7%), though none acknowledged betting on a team to which he or she was assigned.

"There is a huge opportunity making sure our members understand what their role is going to be," Lindley said. "They have understood it, but I don't think it has ever been as highlighted or more an urgent issue, given how important player information is. And really, just player availability.

"The game is clearly going to change."

At Northwestern, five athletic trainers work day-to-day with the football program. Student trainers number twice that many. According to Lindley, the 65 Power Five football programs average four full-time trainers, or about 260 total -- not counting an army of student assistants.

Lindley believes it important for the NCAA to formulate an injury-report policy and not leave it to the discretion of individual conferences. For the reports to be credible, he also believes it is imperative that they be filed by the head athletic trainer -- not the head coach.

"The NFL can fine people. What are they going to do at the college level if there is an inaccurate report given about my quarterback's status?" he said. "Where are the ethical considerations? For me or any athletic trainer, we are bound by a code of ethics. That brings to light some of the medical autonomy. And who does the [athletic trainer] work for? Will an [athletic trainer] be pressured to put inaccurate information on player availability to create or maintain that competitive advantage that we have always had before?

"So there are a decent amount of unanswered questions where our members are going to be right in the crosshairs. The athletic training students are going to have to be continually reminded. They'll be targets. I think the No. 1 target, however, is going to be players. I think it is the athletic trainer and the coaches' responsibility to make sure the players, the ones down the line, are educated. Not necessarily the starters. It is the redshirt freshman who understands my quarterback's injury status because he watches him do rehab every day, and he watches him in practice."

Given their druthers, college coaches traditionally have wanted no part of an injury report. Coaches deal in secrecy and delight in mind games with opponents.

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim is as old-school as they come, yet even he understands that the landscape is changing. He has stubbornly declined to release injury and availability status for decades. Leading up to games now, however, he might grudgingly release such information if doing so will protect the integrity of the game and keep the heat off his players.

"We have all thought about it," Boeheim said of the impact of legalized sports wagering. "Obviously, the more people you put in play -- for example, if all of a sudden, a couple thousand of our season-ticket holders are betting on the games, betting on us, how does that affect what they try to do? And do more people try to get to players to try to affect the outcome of games? You have to think about that."

Kentucky coach John Calipari is another convert, if the information can help keep gamblers away from his program. He suggests the competitive advantage of withheld information might be overrated anyway.

"The more transparency, the less opportunity for someone to be in the middle of something they don't need to be in,'' Calipari said. "I'm not worried about an adult. An adult does it, go to jail. I'd be worried about the 17-, 18- and 19-year-old who comes from nothing. How do we protect these kids through all of this? I'll say this: Transparency is the best answer. And education is the second thing."

University of Toledo officials educated their athletes but still ended up in a mess when, after a lengthy federal investigation concluded in 2015, seven former Rocket athletes -- four basketball players and three football players -- pleaded guilty in a point-shaving scheme. Two Detroit businessmen were sentenced to prison for their roles in the decade-long probe, while the players, who received money, groceries and meals to impact the final score, were placed on probation.

"Well, at the time, we really felt that we were doing a very good job educating and being very compliant relative to all of our rules, especially the gambling issue," Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien said. "And some individuals were caught up in making some bad decisions. Unfortunately, it came to light. And we're glad it did. Obviously, it really sent a bad message."

On the eve of this football season, O'Brien said he received an email from the Mid-American Conference reminding members to be proactive on the gambling issue. There was also more talk about the value of an injury report. Still, like others, they await word to come down from the NCAA.

Like many of the collegiate athletic administrators he represents, Tom McMillen worries, among other concerns, about certain college programs being able to afford Herculean compliance departments while others are unable to afford anything close to that.

"In the last 25 years, all the scandals involving players have been at the college level," said McMillen, president of Lead1 Association. "The NBA had a refereeing incident [Tim Donaghy in 2007]. The player incidents have been at the college level. So when you legalize it, I don't think the risks go away.

"I think in some respects the risk becomes different because it is more frontal, more available, more accepted. So I think there is going to be a different kind of compliance, if you will. Universities are going to have to spend money to protect themselves."

The NCAA has been in study mode since mid-summer. The college football season kicked off without any new guidelines or recommendations, while the NCAA stressed to conferences the need to educate players and staff on existing rules.

Already on the books is NCAA Bylaw 10.3, spelling out the Don'ts of gambling. Athletes and anyone connected to an athletic program -- coaches, support staff, trainers, administrators, chancellors and university presidents -- are not allowed to wager on competitions, college or pro, in any of the 24 sports overseen by the NCAA. Nor, obviously, are they to knowingly provide information to anyone connected to sports wagering activities.

"So that [sharing] inside information concept that people are concerned about is already addressed by NCAA legislation,'' said Naima Stevenson Starks, NCAA deputy general counsel. "Now whether or not we catch people is a different issue."

As in pro sports, the governing body of college sports wrestles with bringing more transparency to its games and practices, challenged to maneuver around student and patient privacy laws, notably the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). To move forward with a national injury report, college athletes would presumably have to consent for their injury information to be released.

But it's not like athlete waivers and injury reports are foreign in the college game, either. A few schools already release availability reports in football, and until this season, the Atlantic Coast Conference produced a league-wide report in football. Along with injuries, what's being considered part of a national report would be greater transparency with things such as academic suspensions, school-imposed suspensions and NCAA eligibility issues.

In the aggregate, pro leagues seem willing to devise or change policies to address the transparency issues but want something in return. One of the more contentious requests made of the states and their gambling regulators is payment of an integrity fee, a .25 percent cut of the amount bet on their respective leagues, as compensation for increased compliance costs officials anticipate incurring.

Behind the leadership of the NBA -- first of the leagues to support legalization of sports betting -- MLB and PGA Tour officials have joined in pushing a five-point plan to state regulators.

At its core, the five-point plan calls for not only making the betting markets transparent but also requiring gambling regulators or bookmakers to notify leagues if they spot questionable activity and help identify league insiders -- players, coaches and officials -- who bet on their own sports at gambling sites. The leagues want regulators to share real-time, account-level betting data in hopes of identifying irregular patterns and be required to cooperate with any investigations.

Spillane, the NBA official spearheading efforts, notes that unless Congress intervenes to put in minimum standards, which he believes is unlikely, the leagues are stuck with lobbying individual state legislatures. The Supreme Court decision late this spring came after many legislatures were already out of session, so the process remains in the early stages as lawmakers return and additional states consider gambling bills. As for the possibility of federal oversight going forward, more might be known after a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

"We have a receptive audience in the things we're talking about," Spillane said. "It is hard to argue doing things that protect integrity, protect fans."

Even so, the lobbying efforts continue without an agreement, with some accusing the gaming industry of pushing back on things as rudimentary as notifying leagues where integrity issues arise.

The NHL has yet to align with other leagues in lobbying efforts, but hockey officials also want a cut of gambling profits if the league's intellectual property, data or video from games are used. As for the anticipated impact of legalized sports betting, a league spokesman said, "We don't view it as something that is going to impact our game in a very profound way.''

Some of the pro leagues, however, want a say in the type of bets offered by state-regulated bookmakers. Major League Baseball, for instance, is uncomfortable with some potential in-play bets, such as whether a pitch is going to be a fastball or curve, and believes there is an even greater integrity risk to wagering on minor league games.

"It is interesting that the casinos want more transparency from us, but then they don't even want to tell me when they spot an integrity issue with a Major League Baseball game," said Seeley, the baseball executive. "So transparency goes both ways.''

Then, there are in-house issues to be dealt with. In the course of collective bargaining with their players, the pro leagues have clearance to release player injury information, which might otherwise be protected by federal privacy laws. According to Seeley, that's something MLB still is working through with its players' union.

The NFL doesn't have as many moving parts because its teams play once a week. As it stands, teams are required to release three practice participation reports during game weeks, and all reportable injuries must be listed, even if the player practiced and is certain to play in the upcoming game. They're also to release a game status report on Friday (for Sunday games) as well as in-game injury reports. Even then, league coaches and teams have been known to at times fudge on what's reported or in some cases simply forward an overly extensive list.

Teams also can have significantly different interpretations of what is meant by injury designations, particularly when it comes to players deemed "questionable." A majority of one team's "questionable" designees might play in the next game, for example, while a higher percentage of an opponent's similarly designated players don't.

As legalized sports gambling spreads, the players themselves are concerned about what it will mean to their private and on-field lives. Eric Winston, veteran offensive lineman and vice president of the NFLPA, said that the "dehumanization of athletes'' is already a weekly occurrence on social media after games.

Baseball has its own tricky issue related to its 76 full-time umpires. Serious gamblers place heavy value in knowing who is behind home plate. The assignments for the week are released to the clubs on Mondays but not to the public until the hours leading up to the first game of a series. Gamblers possess the insight they want the rest of the series, as umpires generally rotate clockwise by position each game.

For full transparency, the assignments could be released to the public, but major league umpires voice serious safety issues that they believe would be exacerbated by releasing their whereabouts. They're already dealing with ratcheted scrutiny due to the advent of computerized strike zone images during TV broadcasts and might face more if in-game plays and calls are further monetized in the new gambling landscape.

"The concern on the umpires' end is this underlying security concern," said Dan Purtell, general counsel of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association. "When people find out about their schedules and assignments, then that can affect who shows up at games. [Umpires] can get specific communications that [people] are aware they are far away from their home. So people get worried about that information getting out there for personal and family security reasons. So the argument that transparency could alleviate that, I don't know about that argument, and it would be something we'd have to consider."

Purtell said the idea of posting umpire schedules and assignments has not come up in discussions with the commissioner's office, though he noted it is hard to imagine it won't at some point. When it does, the union wants a say in any changes affecting the personal security of the umpires.

Baseball officials acknowledge that the issue of posting starting lineups and umpire assignments is something that will need to be debated.

"We are looking at the issues and seeing whether we need to be transparent, not to protect bookmakers," Seeley said. "We want to reduce the temptation to find and disseminate inside information for betting purposes."