The message from the University of Maryland to its football players was topped by the words “SPORTS WAGERING” in oversized, bold lettering.
But the preseason memo, obtained by The Baltimore Sun as part of a public records request, didn’t just caution athletes against point shaving and “impermissible gambling,” which includes participating in fantasy leagues and March Madness and Super Bowl pools.
It also warned against disseminating “insider information” about “plays, strategies, injuries” that could be valuable to gamblers scrapping for advantage in a fast-growing industry in which wagers are made on players’ performances, as well as teams’ wins and losses.
With Maryland regulators drafting ground rules for a newly approved sports betting industry in the state, some college athletics officials — and even some oddsmakers — believe the NCAA could do more than warn players against leaks in situations that could affect schools’ images and credibility.
Unlike the professional National Football League, the NCAA doesn’t require member schools to announce players’ injuries and status for upcoming games. That means “there is no consistent policy,” said former Maryland congressman and basketball star Tom McMillen, who believes mandatory reporting would lessen the temptation for students or others to leak information.
“College sports is more open” than the NFL, said McMillen, who heads the Lead1 Association, which represents athletic directors of the 130 universities in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision — including the University of Maryland, College Park, and the U.S. Naval Academy.
“Kids go to class with [players]. If they’re limping or hurt, people know it.” McMillen said. “There is a lot of potential for the kinds of things you don’t want to happen.”
The gambling boom has put college players in delicate positions.
Like other students who consume sports coverage, they’re bombarded by ads for betting sites and predictions by social media handicappers about the outcome of games. And betting has become so mainstream that players often can’t help but interact with people wagering on college games.
“It could be a little added pressure because a lot of times you have friends or family telling you to win the game for them and all that other nonsense like that,” said Ruben Hyppolite II, a University of Maryland linebacker. “I tune it out, or I don’t let it faze me. I just go out there and play my game.”
Hyppolite, a sophomore, says he compartmentalizes sensitive information he may be privy to when a teammate is sick or injured.
“If I have a teammate who’s hurt, I’m not going to go up on social media and tell the world he’s hurt,” the player said. “Number one, that’s not really my business to put it out there. We keep all that in house.”
Any Terrapins player found to have divulged inside information would risk being declared ineligible for games, the school said in its Aug. 5 memo.
The NCAA declined in 2019 to require standardized injury reports. Its board of governors and others determined such reports “would not advance student-athlete well-being,” NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn wrote in an Aug. 31 email to The Sun. The NCAA said such reports would not “protect the integrity of competition” and that it would use other means — such as aggressively educating athletes — to safeguard games.
Former Maryland and Army athletic director Kevin Anderson told The Sun that mandatory injury and status reports aren’t in college athletes’ interest.
“The reason why this information is shared is because of the betting line for professional sports,” said Anderson, now associate athletic director at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I would hope that we honor the privacy of our student-athletes and not provide this information for the purpose of providing the information for those who choose to bet on intercollegiate athletics.”
Some college football teams provide information on players’ status or injuries to the media — Ohio State, for example, lists unavailable players — while withholding details.
Hyppolite said he wouldn’t have an issue with injury reports at Maryland if other schools did them, too. “It can give teams advantages as far as game plans go, but I don’t see it being a problem,” he said.
A University of Maryland, College Park, spokesman said the school would work with the Big Ten Conference on any changes to its disclosure policies.
“We just take our lead from the conference,” said Jason Yellin, strategic communications officer for Maryland athletics. “We have education sessions with each of our teams where we speak to them about sports wagering and gambling. We provide guardrails and guidance.”
The Big Ten declined to respond to questions, saying only that it doesn’t require such reports.
Maryland opened its season Sept. 4 with a win over West Virginia, which was a slight favorite, then overwhelmed Howard University last weekend before defeating the University of Illinois 20-17 on a last-second field goal Friday. Gamblers in states where sports gaming has been established could make various bets on the outcomes. In addition, online sites included Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, receiver Dontay Demus Jr. and other Maryland players as options for fantasy teams that could net gamblers money based on their performances.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, which Maryland left in 2014, was the only major conference releasing weekly football injury reports when it stopped doing so in 2018. A common coaches’ complaint was that some teams were releasing less information than others.
Former Maryland and NBA basketball player Len Elmore said he favors “some kind of standardized report where everybody is compelled to release the same type of information. It certainly needs to be accurate, but it can also be very short and concise,” said Elmore, co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a research and watchdog group.
“Gamblers are going to try to do everything possible to get in-depth. But where there’s a void, you create a greater opportunity for them to utilize information.”
There have been few publicly available examples of “inside information” violations on campuses in recent years, but some schools are trying to get ahead of the curve.
In 2019, Purdue University prohibited its faculty, staff, students and contractors from betting on Boilermakers games. It said it acted because people on campus “may be afforded greater access to information about the university’s teams, student-athletes and coaches that could impact the outcome of competitions.” A small number of other schools — including Villanova University and St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania and Butler University in Indiana — have similar restrictions.
As sports betting has spread, McMillen says college athletes are increasingly vulnerable to “outside gambling influences.”
“In a legalized environment, it’s much more pervasive,” he said. “When you have a casino in your hand — as you will in Maryland — the potential for issues is much greater. With pervasiveness comes risk.”
The Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency is accepting public comments through Sept. 27 on proposed regulations for online and in-person betting on professional and college games. Betting sites are expected to be licensed at the state’s six casinos, its thoroughbred horse racing tracks and the Baltimore stadium homes of the Ravens and Orioles, among other sites, as well as via apps.
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Generally speaking, sportsbooks seek to avoid big losses by setting odds that prevent grossly uneven amounts of wagering on one team over the other. That’s why online sites such as Panama-based Betonline.ag say they endorse college or collegiate conference policies — such as required releases about injuries — that can mitigate against gamblers with inside information wagering larger-than-usual sums on one team.
Mandatory disclosures “would make our job easier. Bring it on,” said Dave Mason, the company’s sportsbook brand manager.
New York-based FanDuel, a sports fantasy and betting site, said in a written statement: “While we can’t comment on standardized injury reports although they would be welcome, we do have controls in place to spot betting irregularities.”
Sports wagering is expected to be up and running in Maryland in the fall or winter, according to the state gaming agency. It said it would be premature to provide a more definitive timetable.
Sports sociologists have said sports and fantasy league betting could change the nature of fandom if spectators begin to care more about wagering than about a favorite team.
Brooke Martin, a University of Maryland senior and Terps fan, said she hasn’t seen evidence of that in College Park.
“It’ll be interesting to see what Maryland does when all the apps are set up,” Martin said. But for now, she said sports betting “is not something we talk about. I’m a lifelong Maryland fan. My dad went here. It’s definitely just a part of my life.”