Why college athletes are unaware of legal issues when betting

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Jontay Porter's prop bet scandal and student-athlete harassment have raised awareness to ban prop betting nationwide. (6:38)

THE SPREAD OF sports betting poses new legal risks for college athletes in states where gambling is allowed, but an ESPN analysis has found that most university athletic departments in those states typically don't address the new legal pitfalls.

Using public records requested by the Student Press Law Center, ESPN reviewed sports-betting policies at 24 Power 5 public universities in states that had mobile sports betting by the end of 2023 and found that only four schools had policies that explicitly warn student-athletes of potential legal consequences.

While college athletes have long faced losing NCAA eligibility for betting on sports, the legal risks are new since the advent of legalized betting six years ago. State laws now often subject athletes to greater punishment -- and may even criminalize -- wagering by athletes.

It isn't clear if the universities address the potential legal consequences at in-person sessions with athletes because 21 of the 24 schools contacted by ESPN declined to comment or did not respond to multiple emails asking about their educational efforts around gambling.

The apparent lack of information in policies could leave athletes unaware that engaging in the same betting activity as their non-athlete fellow students could leave them in a legal bind. A 2023 NCAA survey of 18- to 22-year-olds found that 58% have participated in at least one sports betting activity. Six percent said they had lost more than $500 on sports betting in a single day.

University of South Dakota football player Clayton Denker, a member of the school's student-athlete advisory committee, said the athletic department emphasized the ban on sports gambling at the beginning of the school year and stressed that violations could bring "severe consequences" and a loss of eligibility.

However, Denker said, he had no idea that betting while a college athlete could be a felony in South Dakota.

"They should lead with that," Denker told ESPN. "If [athletes] were to understand this affects the rest of my life, not just my sport, then I think they would take it more seriously."

The issue of regulatory and criminal consequences has become more prominent in the past two years as athletes and coaches -- to whom the ban and new laws also apply -- from at least five schools in three states have been criminally charged.

"It seems to me to make sense that student-athletes are educated on their various state laws," said Mark Hicks, the NCAA's managing director of enforcement. He added that the job is better left to individual schools than to the NCAA, although the organization would support more consistency. "As much as we can advocate for consistent practices across state lines, that's really helpful."

A "majority" of the responsibility for educating athletes about state law does fall on the school, said John Carns, the senior associate athletic director for compliance at the University of Louisville.

"Student-athletes are only thinking about, probably their eligibility, but there are other legal consequences to it that they're going to fall into," he said. "And that's not a great way to start your adult life."

Any criminal conviction could have long-term repercussions for student-athletes, said Julie Sommer, executive director of The Drake Group, a nonprofit that advocates for reform in college sports. A conviction would possibly have to be disclosed to future employers or graduate schools and could affect future opportunities, such as taking the bar exam, she said.

"The penalties are really severe for college athletes, [such as] loss of scholarship," Sommer said. "And the breaking of state and federal laws, that's something that follows them for the rest of their lives."

IN THE 38 states with legalized sports betting, all but two specifically restrict athletes from betting on sports, according to research compiled for this story by Legal Sports Report. Six states -- Kentucky, New Jersey, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia -- have "clear criminal penalties" when an athlete or other prohibited person places a bet, according to the research.

Among those states, the definition of crime varies.

In Tennessee, it's a misdemeanor for any NCAA athlete to bet on sports. Virginia's rule is specific to bets on "any event in a league in which such a person participates." In South Dakota, it is a felony for athletes to bet on events in which they or their teams are participating.

Some of the Iowa State and University of Iowa athletes arrested in a state police investigation last year were reported to have bet on their own teams, as did New England Patriots wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, according to police. Boutte was charged earlier this year with felony computer fraud and misdemeanor underage gambling while a player at LSU.

In Kentucky, it is not only illegal for athletes to bet on events in which they participate, but it is also a misdemeanor for "spouses and close family members" to wager on those events.

Kentucky men's basketball player Brennan Canada, a member of his school's student-athlete advisory committee, said athletic department officials told athletes at the beginning of the year that gambling violates NCAA rules and state law. But he said he was not aware of the additional provision about family. When informed by ESPN, Canada laughed and said, "I'm an only child."

The number of NCAA investigations into prohibited and underage betting has almost doubled each year: 15 in 2021, 30 in 2022, 50 in 2023. This year's numbers follow a similar trend, according to Hicks. At least a third of college students nationwide are under the standard legal betting age of 21, according to federal education data, and athletes are more susceptible to charges of underage gambling because they are often under greater scrutiny and subject to more reporting requirements.

Legal experts have said that athletes -- in part because they know they're not supposed to be betting -- are more likely to use someone else's account or identity to access betting apps, which could make them subject to other fraud and identity crimes.

Former Iowa State running back Jirehl Brock faced records tampering charges last year after he allegedly used a betting app under someone else's name. The charge, an aggravated misdemeanor, was later dropped. Brock admitted to placing the bets and said it was such a common activity it just seemed acceptable. He and a few other athletes arrested in Iowa said they didn't grasp the possible criminal consequences.

"That's how it plays out, it's kind of a video game on your phone that you can possibly win money with," Brock said.

ESPN'S REVIEW OF college sports betting policies comes from documents obtained by the Student Press Law Center, which sent records requests to 27 major-conference public universities in states that allowed mobile sports wagering as of the end of 2023. The SPLC requested copies of policies pertaining to sports wagering, agreements for integrity monitoring services and reports on proven or possible suspicious behavior or violations.

Michigan and Central Florida said they had "no responsive records," including to the request for a copy of "any policy related to sports betting for student athletes." UCF noted there was "no separate and distinct policy -- other than following NCAA rules." Michigan's chief compliance officer did not respond to multiple emails and calls asking for clarification. Kansas State did not respond to the request, which was sent out in December. Ohio State and Arizona never produced records, and Oregon officials noted they needed more time to process the records.

The records provided showed that written policies vary greatly across schools. Some athletic departments borrow excerpts directly from a sports wagering booklet called "Don't Bet On It" by the National Endowment for Financial Education and the NCAA. Others list the gambling rules under subsections like "Athletic Department rules and expectations for student-athletes," and some create school-specific policies that lean heavily on the NCAA regulations. At Rutgers, gambling is listed under "social expectations" alongside several other bullet points on drugs, alcohol, social media, hazing and sexual misconduct. Rutgers said this was a standard team rules template used by coaches.

Some schools like Virginia Tech note that disciplinary actions for sports wagering violations can also come from "local, state, and/or federal prosecution."

Derek Gwinn, the executive associate AD who oversees compliance for Virginia Tech, said that presentations to student-athletes often include examples of high-profile cases, such as the Iowa investigation. Gwinn said that as sports betting spreads, the education provided to the athletes has been "enhanced" to include repercussions for them and their eligibility.

"We emphasized the importance because it was so readily available to them now through mobile applications and things like that," he said. "So, we just [say] ignore all the influence, and the commercials that you see constantly, and all the ads in your Twitter feeds, and things like that. So, just remember that it's still prohibited, per NCAA rules."

Gwinn said student-athletes occasionally ask which sports they are allowed to bet on, but the school's message is clear: "Avoid it entirely."

A senior Iowa athletic department official told ESPN they also focus on preventing sports wagering rather than emphasizing the penalties. The official said athletes receive NCAA compliance training at the start of the year and receive reminders around major events such as the Super Bowl and March Madness.

Virginia Tech is also one of only four schools, according to records, that have had direct agreements with monitoring companies such as U.S. Integrity since January 2019. Sixteen schools said that they have no direct contracts with any integrity monitors, and four referenced monitoring contracts at the conference level.

Monitoring agreements can include education and consulting services. LSU's agreement with U.S. Integrity in 2023 gave "LSU Athletics staff and athletes education on inappropriate involvement in sports betting."

Gwinn said that Virginia Tech's integrity monitor provides perspective on how gambling incidents occur, a sense of wagering activity on Hokies games, and additional protection for student-athletes from social media harassment.

Sommer, the Seattle sports attorney, said athletes benefit when their schools receive direct information. "The more preventative and monitoring measures you take, the greater the chance of success and catching the bad actors, reducing the harms [for] the college athletes and the student population as well the integrity of the game."

Clint Hangebrauck, the NCAA's managing director of enterprise risk management, said while schools do a good job of informing athletic staff and athletes about the rules, the recent high-profile cases have prompted compliance staffs to think about better ways to educate. He cited the NCAA's partnership with international advocacy group EPIC Risk Management, which brings in former problem gamblers to speak with athletes and staff.

"I do think there's certainly an interest in growing what that looks like because it has become so prevalent in our society," he said. "Student-athletes are coming into college, and many have engaged in betting in some form or fashion and so it's entrenched. It's an ongoing conversation on how best do we educate. I would imagine it's going to get more and more robust as we go along."

Denker, the South Dakota football player, said sharing examples of other violations, especially criminal cases, would help athletes.

"Our athletic department makes sure that they cover every topic at the beginning of the year," he said. "I think that there hasn't been enough of a crackdown or enforcement across the NCAA for this to be at the forefront of policies."

ESPN Senior writer Adam Rittenberg, ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino and Student Press Law Center legal fellow Ellen Goodrich contributed to this story.