Jay Christensen covered college football, among other sports, for the Los Angeles Times and produces the popular college football blog TheWizofOdds.com.
Envision you’re a college football sportswriter spending your days watching practices, interviewing coaches and players, and chronicling victories and losses.
You know each team inside out, who’s hurt and who’s healthy - every weakness and strength. With all this insider knowledge, why not try and make a little moolah on the side by placing a wager or two?
Gambling, it turns out, is commonplace among sportswriters, although it is banned by some news organizations, including The New York Times, because the potential conflict of interest is a violation of ethics codes.
A survey conducted by the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University determined that over 40 percent of sportswriters gamble and nearly 5 percent acknowledge betting on sports they cover.
Nearly 70 percent of the sportswriters who gamble admitted it clouded their objectivity.
“It’s on their minds and they know it’s on their minds,” said Marie Hardin, associate professor and associate director of research at the Curley Center. “That was really surprising to me.”
But does coverage suffer? Some say no.
“As to whether I’m getting tainted information because someone’s gambling is nonsense,” said Ted Sevransky, a professional bettor and Covers Expert based in Las Vegas.
Mike Seba, oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, concurs: “Believe me, I think everybody should be able to bet, but I live in Las Vegas where it’s legal so it’s no big deal.”
Seba argued that the Internet offers a system of checks and balances.
"If somebody is out there is trying to slant it one way because he's trying to get an edge or something, he'd be exposed immediately," he said. "It’s not like the Old West. Before the Internet you could do something like that, but now with the Internet you have access to too many sources.”
The Curley survey polled 285 reporters from newspapers big and small. Gambling was defined as “financial wagering on the performance of a team or athlete or outcome of an athletic event or portion thereof.” Of the 285, 117 (41.1 percent) acknowledged gambling on sports.
They were then asked if they gambled on sports they cover, and 13 (4.6 percent) answered yes.
Mike Hlas, sports columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, said he knew no TV, radio, or newspaper college football reporter who gambled on teams they covered.
“That’s not to say that someone isn’t doing it on the sly,” he said. “And that’s also not to say that I haven’t known some in the past, but right now I couldn’t name one.”
He didn’t think it was a wise idea.
“I never understood why somebody would bet on a game they cover because it would distract you from covering the game,” he said.
Joe Hawk, sports editor of the Review-Journal in Las Vegas — center of the gambling universe — said his paper has no policy on the matter.
“Although, I think it’s pretty well understood by the guys who cover UNLV football and basketball that they are not to bet on those games,” he said. “But, for instance, if our college football writer wants to bet on NFL games, I don’t have a problem with that. Nor do I have a problem if our college basketball writer wants to bet on the NBA. When you get to their respective sports, however, that gets a little more dicey.”
In the end, Hawk said he wouldn’t object to writers betting on a few games, as long as the gambling didn’t relate to the team he or she covered.
“The real issue is the perception of ethical violations,” Hawk said. “People just don’t want to tread that close to the line and put their job in danger.”
Sevransky laughed at the suggestion of ethical issues coming into play.
“Rule No. 1, journalists have no ethics,” he said. “And No. 2, I can’t even fathom what ethical violation … even if Brent Musburger has $10,000 riding on whomever when he’s calling a game you don’t hear it, you don’t know it. Let alone a beat reporter for a team who has a good read on them.”
Seba, whose Las Vegas Sports Consultants is the service that sets the opening line for many of the sportsbooks in Las Vegas, sees no difference between wagering on sports or Wall Street.
“I just never saw what the big deal was,” he said. “It’s just like investing in a stock. I’m mean you have stock scandals every year, but it doesn’t stop people from investing in stocks.”
Journalists Hlas and Hawk assert betting on sports should be legal nationwide.
“If for no other reason, I think it’s hypocritical,” Hlas said. “Rare is the state in the union that doesn’t have a lottery. Casinos seem to be in more states than not any more.
“This complaint comes from powerful special interest groups — the NFL and the NCAA. I don’t think it’s based in logic. I think it’s based in very powerful people blocking it from happening.”
Hawk should know something about gambling. He has lived in Las Vegas for 32 years.
“You can’t go into a casino without walking past a sportsbook,” he said. “In some regards we’ve almost become kind of numb to it. Outside of Las Vegas, when people talk about it, it’s either talked in hushed tones; you know it’s illegal or it’s being done in a back alley or something with Rocco who will break your knee if you don’t pay up in time.”
He added, “Here in Las Vegas, it’s all above board. The people who live here and have been around for a while take offense at people who look down their noses at sports betting like it’s some sort of criminal activity. Since it’s legal here, it’s very well policed.”
But perhaps gambling isn’t really that frowned by upon by the journalistic community after all.
Consider that national and regional meetings of The Associated Press Sports Editors have traditionally been held in — you guessed it — Las Vegas. Particularly, the West Region meetings took place annually in the gambling Mecca for years.
“They did for about 10 or 12 years but were discontinued because hotels became too expensive,” said Michael Anastasi, second vice president of APSE. He asserted that meetings were originally moved there because of inexpensive lodging.