Nothing poses a threat to college sports like gambling

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Domask isn’t wrong. UConn won its three games tournament games by an average of 28.7 points, a number that drops only slightly (to 22.9) when you add the six victories it took to win last year’s national championship.
Illinois senior Marcus Domask made a stunning admission in advance of his team’s Elite Eight game against Connecticut Saturday night at TD Garden. He hasn’t watched any of the Huskies’ run through the tournament. It’s not that he isn’t a fan of March Madness, or is too busy with his own games to watch others. He just chooses the ones with more excitement, finishes that go down to the wire.
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“We suck at winning close games,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley quipped after his team’s 30-point win over San Diego State Thursday night, “so you have to go with the alternative.”
Hurley, along with the legion of UConn fans who’ve made their pilgrimage to Boston, is only too happy to take the comfortable wins.
You know who else loves them?
Gamblers looking for a sure thing.
And thus does March Madness take a hard, sharp turn into the dark underside of sports, where the ubiquity of gambling has cast a shadow over all the games we watch. From professional partnerships between pro leagues and gambling sites, from bottomless advertising money flowing from casinos to billboards near you, gambling has managed to chart an unlikely path from third-rail, illegal-underworld activity to mainstream, legalized, in-your-face fun.
We are seeing the impact in every corner of the sports world. Major League Baseball’s biggest star is mired in a potential blockbuster gambling scandal involving his interpreter. The NBA is investigating a potential gambling-motivated scheme by one of its players. The NFL spent weeks last offseason suspending players for improper gambling behavior, with Patriots receiver Kayshon Boutte still on the outside looking in for behavior dating to his college days.
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All of it stinks, threatening to erode our trust in the games we see, with the potential fixing of games looming as the unforgivable, and unfixable, sin.
Yet when it comes to college sports, the insidiousness of the gambling virus feels even worse, with twin threats to vulnerable players who could be targeted to affect in-game play for the purpose of gambling, or who could be targeted by outsiders who lost money based on regular, everyday in-game play. While the best part of college sports unfolds around us, men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament games whose ratings continue to climb by the year, the worst aspects of the game unfold in simultaneous real time.
But for any damage you might believe can be done by the free agency aspect of the transfer portal or the pay-for-play aspect of NIL collectives and endorsement money, nothing poses a threat like gambling.
Everyone in the game knows it, right up to NCAA president Charlie Baker, whose just announced initiative to educate young students about the perils of gambling includes a plan to ban prop bets on NCAA players. It’s a small but important move, aimed at protecting student-athletes who have described random social media messages or brazen screams from the stands decrying a late missed free throw or bad pass that cost a bettor cold, hard cash.
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“It’s scary at the end of the games,” said Hurley’s son Andrew, a senior walk-on guard whose occasional appearances in those closing minutes often has him on the receiving end of encouraging chants to shoot the ball. It’s only later he wonders if other motivations might be at play.
“I don’t fully understand how much of that works. I know turnovers are pretty costly for people. I’ve definitely heard about it. It’s a scary game to play. It’s tough. During the game I’m not thinking about that, but in the locker room after the game I’m thinking, ‘I hope nobody is out there jumping me for what I did in the game.’ ”
That’s the stuff of a college coach’s nightmare.
“It concerns me a lot,” Illinois’ Brad Underwood acknowledged in the midst of his team’s March Madness run. “Concerns me a lot. We have one of the greatest games and the competitive integrity — I use that word a lot — can never be challenged.
“I’m so much in favor of what the NCAA is doing, Mr. Baker, in terms of coming out against prop betting. I think that’s — we in the Big Ten, our commissioner, our athletic directors, put in place this year injury reports before games. Huge. So I think it’s something we’re always going to have to keep educating on.
“I think we’re naive if we don’t think it’s not happening everywhere. It is. We have to do our part to educate our young people. We have to continue to do everything we can to be preventive. We’re not a pro franchise where we drive into buildings and drive into gated communities and nobody ever knows. We’ve got college kids wearing boots in dorms, you know, and being seen.”
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That’s why, as Dan Hurley said, programs have to spend extra time protecting players from potential bad actors.
“I think you worry about people getting close to the players. Anyone involved in your program, whether student-managers or what have you, the antennas are up,” he said. “Now, with players, with this NIL opportunity, it’s not like they need to bet on games in college with that insider information because they need the cash. These kids now are in a position to begin investing money, taking care of family, having family travel. NIL has been great.
“You worry about the people around the players and how easily accessible it is. We play and practice at the XL Center, not far from a window where we can see the gambling going on.”
Were those dots ever to be connected, the game would come crashing down. Ask Boston College, on the wrong side of an infamous point-shaving scandal in the late 1970s, the one involving monster-turned-informant-turned-basis-of-the-movie-”Goodfellas” Henry Hill. Ask New York City college hoops programs that have zero current impact on the area’s sports psyche, unlike their 1950s-era prominence, until gambling ripped it all to shreds.
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And with ever-growing legal opportunities to gamble, exposure to its particular adrenaline rush and potential addictive behavior is reaching younger demographics.
“Think about it. We’re putting an addictive product — gambling — on a very addictive device, your smartphone,” Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell said during the announcement of the state’s new education coalition. “We’ve gone from sports gambling being illegal nearly everywhere to being legal in dozens of states throughout the country in just a matter of a few years.”
As Baker added at the same event, “It’s basically a 50-state issue even if it’s only legal in 38. And if you think kids under the age of 21 aren’t doing this, you’re kidding yourselves.”
Boston Globe Today: Sports | March 29, 2024 Share WATCH: Host Chris Gasper, reporter Alex Speier and writer Bob Ryan talk about the Red Sox season opener, the NFL draft and if Robert Kraft is out of touch.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.

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