North Carolina academics see the biggest threat for match-fixing and bribery in the state coming from college athletes, and the conferences and sports that fly under the radar.
While the NCAA has reined in its punishments on student betting due to the proliferation of the activity, it has not altered its punishment for what it considers the most egregious violation of sports integrity: match-fixing and bribery.
Students who engage in this type of activity, whether on their teams or others, face a permanent loss of eligibility. While this acts as a substantial deterrent, understanding where match-fixing is most likely to occur allows universities and regulators alike to prevent future instances.
NCSharp spoke with two leading North Carolina academics on the issues of match-fixng and bribery in North Carolina sports in the hopes of narrowing down where they are most likely to occur.
The first, Dr. Adam Berg, associate professor of kinesiology at UNC Greensboro, teaches courses on sports history, sociology, and philosophy. He is also a member of the North American Society for Sport History and the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport.
The second, Dr. Michele Malkin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University in Greenville, has contributed frequently to NCSharp. Her work on collegiate problem gambling sits at the forefront of responsible gambling discussions at the national level.
Their insight can give regulators and operators a way to focus North Carolina responsible gambling education and betting integrity technology in the right places to ensure the fidelity of North Carolina sports.
The student-athlete as unpaid laborer
Dr. Berg takes a broad view of American sports betting.
“It’s always been happening under the radar. It’s intertwined with baseball, tackle football and boxing,” he says. “Historically, college athletes have been more susceptible to match-fixing because they are performing as unpaid laborers.”
While Name, Image and Likeness deals mean calling college athletes “unpaid laborers” is no longer technically accurate, it doesn’t mean the problem of match-fixing in college sports has gone anywhere.
“NIL deals mean the top-flight college athletes are making a ton of money so they may be less susceptible to fix an outcome,” Berg argues.
The NIL market, now estimated at over $1 billion in the US, underscores how much money a player could make in collegiate sports. It also reminds most college athletes how much money they’re not making and will not make in their athletic careers.
Perhaps because of NIL, Berg hones in on a population of college athletes that don’t and won’t see five- or six-figure NIL deals.
“I would be concerned about non-football and non-basketball bets,” he says. “I’d be concerned about bets on women’s college sports. I might also be concerned about football and basketball betting that’s geared toward contests in the lower-tier conferences. Such as the Southern Conference that UNCG is in. That’s where you’ll find athletes with more to gain by fixing a match and would see the risk involved as more likely to be worthwhile.”
Of the seven Division I conferences with schools in North Carolina, the Mid-Eastern Athletic, Southern and Big South conferences rank near the bottom of many collegiate sports power rankings.
Most of the schools in those three conferences offer baseball and softball–lower-profile sports typically open to wagering–and basketball. North Carolina has six full-member schools in those conferences.
In Berg’s view, these sports could be most at risk, and these schools may be most in need of gambling integrity education.
One such school, High Point University in the Big South, is one of four universities that will receive responsible gambling seminars sponsored by EPIC Risk Management in 2024.
Technology casts bright light but leaves bad actors in the shadows
Because of various betting technology services, bets and sports performances are being tracked more thoroughly than ever before.
“So, when there’s a statistical anomaly, people recognize it,” Berg says. A player whose foot speed drops .5 miles per hour or a quarterback whose spin rate slips a few rotations per second is clocked and noted and betting lines change. Nationally televised games feature this technology, and many sports betting apps have integrated it.
“These high profile sports and conferences are being watched, and they have a vested interest in their competitions being legitimate. With that said, if you wanted to fix a match, you’d want to do it with a sport or a conference that is not being watched as closely.”
The person interested in match-fixing can use the shadow of technology’s bright light to find those athletes at the smaller conferences in the lower-profile wagerable sports.
Some NCAA DI conferences have data partnerships to track player data, but not many. None of the smaller DI conferences in North Carolina have them.
As such, regulators need to use betting integrity technology effectively with these lower-profile conferences and sports to make sure bad actors cannot hide in the shadows.
Perhaps expanding the reach of brands like Genius Sports that track player data to ensure that all athletes in wagerable sports in North Carolina are scrutinized could be a long-term goal for both the NCAA and the state.
Athletes without pro aspirations, assistant coaches on large staffs
Malkin, like Dr. Berg, sees match-fixing and bribery impacting those collegiate athletes (and coaches) whose careers may rarely touch the spotlight.
In Malkin’s view, these are the walk-on athletes and the coaches on large staffs. They’re the members of college athletics programs who see their participation for their college as the culmination of their careers.
“The thing that worries me with match-fixing specifically is players in any sport who don’t have the ability to see themselves going pro,” Malkin says. “The reality is they’re not star players, and their life beyond the four- or five-year time they’re in the university is more questionable. They may not know what they want to do beyond college.”
Without pro aspirations, these athletes don’t often worry about pro scouting. If they aren’t star players, they may also not think about standing out in a televised game–if such an opportunity exists.
“I think those are the most vulnerable players to an integrity issue,” says Malkin, “because they may be able to adjust their play. Most people won’t notice the adjustment–they may just appear to have an off day–but it may have a significant impact on the game.”
Adjusting one’s play subtly is often all that is asked by someone trying to fix a match. Baseball is a good example of where this could occur, and coaches could do just as much to subtly adjust a game as players.
“Sports like baseball where a coach can make a change or substitution where it’s not a big deal is where an integrity issue could occur. Like giving a pitcher an extra day’s rest. That’s easy to overlook, but it can affect betting lines.”
Confronting insider sports trading
When asked whether coaches on large staffs are more susceptible to match-fixing, Malkin concurs.
“Unless you’re one of the biggest coaches in the country, they don’t get a lot of support or glory. Especially assistant coaches, they may want to line their pockets a little better.”
She likens it to stock fraud.
“It’s kind of like insider trading when a coach has insider information about an unknown injury or an athlete being off. Things that may not be well known. They may say I really need $10,000 dollars, and so I’m going to make this decision based on what I know.”
In her estimation, the simple fact is that the people most at risk of bribery and match-fixing are the ones who have the most to gain by taking a bribe–whether they be players or coaches.
This may not seem revolutionary, and it’s not. But, in Malkin’s view, stopping vulnerable athletes from engaging in match-fixing means taking on the massive task of following the performances of the majority of NC student-athletes who don’t have televised games.
It could also include beefing up rules about injury reporting in college sports, so coaches can’t use that information as easily for inside betting.
It may even further require the banning of prop bets on college athletes.
Hyperawareness around betting integrity could create false confidence
Malkin has been researching sports betting at North Carolina colleges for some time. Her research has found that 20% of all NC students engage in sports betting.
That comes in below national findings, and, at the moment, does not include any evidence of match-fixing in the state.
“People are hyper-aware of everything to do with gambling,” she explains. “They saw what’s happened in Iowa and Alabama. I’m not saying that people who might have integrity angles aren’t going to engage in those practices, but I think people are seeing a lot happening.”
Because of the numerous high-profile cases that rocked the NCAA this summer, Malkin thinks “we’ll see a pause in integrity issues for a short time, which will make people feel more comfortable, and then we’ll see an upswing again.”
With North Carolina scheduled to launch online sports betting by summer 2024, near the one-year anniversary of the Iowa and Alabama betting scandals, will the pendulum have started swinging back towards betting integrity problems or will North Carolina regulators make strong responsible gambling rules that protect the integrity of sports and athletes?
“If we don’t keep the issue in the news and keep educating our athletes,” she warns, “the integrity problems will come back. We need to keep sports integrity around gambling the hot issue.”
So, what have we learned and what can we do?
Evaluating the arguments of both Berg and Malkin, a few key learnings run throughout. They are the following:
- Athletes who don’t receive major scholarships or NIL deals and who don’t have professional ambitions have more to gain from match-fixing or bribery.
- Coaches, mainly assistants, on large staffs or in less-popular sports or who make subtle personnel decisions may be vulnerable to match-fixing.
- Less-popular wagerable sports like baseball, softball and soccer are more susceptible to match-fixing because they fly under the radar of the media and betting integrity technology. This is especially true at lower-profile DI conference schools.
The NC Lottery Commission, regulator of the sports betting industry, is in the early stages of drafting rules and regulations. To that end, a few approaches that will help reduce the risk of betting integrity infractions include:
- Targeting education around betting integrity at schools and to athletes most at risk for such behavior.
- Expanding sports data tracking technology to all wagerable collegiate sports in North Carolina.
- Outlawing or seriously limiting prop betting on collegiate sports.