In addition to voting in state and local elections last week, New Jerseyans passed judgment on a ballot question concerning betting on college sporting events in the state. The question read: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to permit wagering through casinos and current or former horse racetracks on all college sport or athletic events?” It also included the following extra information: “Currently, wagering is prohibited on college sport or athletic events that take place in New Jersey. Wagering is also prohibited on an event in which a team from a New Jersey college participates.”
New Jersey voters rejected the question. With almost all precincts reporting, New Jerseyans voted 57%-43% against allowing gambling on in-state collegiate athletics. So, while New Jerseyans can bet on Auburn-Alabama games, Rutgers contests are off-limits.
Fear about the consequences of betting on college sports stems in part from various scandals that rocked the 20th Century. One famous fiasco occurred during the 1978-79 season, when mafia-associated gamblers bribed Boston College men’s basketball players to participate in a point-shaving scheme, whereby the players would ensure through their play that BC did not win by the required margins to cover the point spreads on given games. The BC point-shaving scandal was the subject of the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “Playing for the Mob.”
Nearly 30 years earlier, men’s basketball players at various New York City colleges were indicted for their involvement in a similar scheme. Many of them were convicted and sentenced. This event left a stain on big-time college basketball, leading to its “near destruction” halfway through the 1900s.
It is generally accepted that college athletes are more vulnerable than professional athletes to these bribery schemes because they are amateurs who do not earn remuneration. One commentator explained the standard view that, given this lack of compensation, mixing betting and college sports is seen as a dangerous cocktail. Discussing the link between the recent push for compensating student-athletes and the evolving public opinion about betting on college sports, industry market analyst Eric Ramsey told NJ.com, “To put it simply, the more we pay college athletes, the less we will be concerned about their propensity to cheat or get ahead in some illegitimate way.”
College athletes will be undoubtedly making more money in the coming year. Over the summer, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted an interim name, image, and likeness (NIL) policy, liberalizing the rules for student-athlete publicity rights and permitting college athletes to profit off of their NILs. Moreover, the Supreme Court recently decided NCAA v. Alston, upholding a lower court decision that ordered the NCAA to allow schools to furnish education-related benefits to their student-athletes. (Check out JSEL’s special online edition from this summer on the Court’s Alston decision.)
New Jersey lawmakers cited these moves as allaying their fears about game-fixing and the like, to say nothing of the financial incentive for the state to tax the betting transactions. But the state’s voters did not agree. It is possible that this issue will come up again if there is a material change in the compensation landscape for student-athletes, but at least as of now, the ballot question has failed.
Eli Nachmany is a third-year law student at Harvard Law School and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.