Sports

As legal sports gambling arrives, the ACC is not placing any bets of its own

ACC commissioner John Swofford meets with the media Thursday at the conclusion of the ACC's spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla.
ACC commissioner John Swofford meets with the media Thursday at the conclusion of the ACC's spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla. ldecock@newsobserver.com

The old maxim of the professional gambler is to only bet on sure things, which is why the most secretive and paranoid group of coaches and administrators there ever has been – the NFL – is required to put out a reasonably honest injury report every week, under penalty of hefty fines. If everyone has the same information, none of it is valuable.

As legalized sports gambling is set to sweep across the ACC footprint, the conference’s approach is not to place any bets at all on its potential impact. “I may be naive,” commissioner John Swofford said, and this approach certainly leans that way, but it might not be wrong, either – even if the conference’s own history shows just what a threat gambling can present.

While the entire world of sports wrestles with the implications of the Supreme Court ruling that gave states the opportunity to legalize sports gambling, Swofford’s let’s-wait-and-see stance is at the far laissez-faire end of the spectrum. In part, that’s because of his belief that “the optics” of betting on the performance of college athletes are terrible. And in part, that’s because of everyone’s experience with such earth-shaking changes as cost of attendance and alcohol sales that could barely muster a nudge to the irrepressible steamroller that is the billion-dollar amateur athletics machine.

 

UNC coach Larry Fedora talks about football safety and CTE while meeting with the media during the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte in July.

 

That makes Swofford’s stance – and by extension, the ACC’s – an odd mixture of sepia-tinted principles and hard-earned pragmatism, and while there’s certainly a case to be made for a more proactive approach from a conference whose coaches just voted to get rid of its own football injury report, there’s nothing wrong with waiting to see where this goes, especially for a league with 15 schools in 10 different jurisdictions likely to have wildly divergent approaches to gambling.

“I think we just have to plow into this, understand it as best we can, and see if it really is as – if you’re really opposed to it, see if it’s as bad as we really think it is – because I don’t think we know,” Swofford said, his position essentially unchanged since the decision was handed down in the middle of the ACC’s spring meetings two months ago.

None of this is new to the ACC or its schools, all of which have been dealing with the implications of illegal gambling for decades. Long-time ACC members have the stain of the disgraced Dixie Classic burned into their collective DNA; the expansion newcomers may find the 1979 point-shaving scandal at Boston College to be a more relatable example. Either way, the processes and prohibitions designed to keep football and basketball untainted have long been in place by necessity, and legalization will only shed more light on them.

And even as the ACC drops its version of the injury report, Swofford acknowledged that the introduction of legalized gambling will likely require some sort of standardized national injury report that covers not only injuries but suspensions and other absences, for integrity’s sake, not this season but by next season.

“I think that’s critically important, and would include not only injuries but if there’s disciplinary action where a player is suspended for a game or for whatever reason,” Swofford said. “That would need to be a part of it, as well.”

In some ways, the ACC has been preparing for this moment for 50 years. The world of legal gambling may turn out to be no different from the existing universe of illegal gambling. In that sense, expecting the status quo may be the best way to deal with the unexpected.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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