Iowa sports betting scandal feels new, but it's a tale as old as sports
The recent string of sports betting scandals feels like an inevitable accompaniment to the growing pervasiveness of sports gambling in American culture.
From the Detroit Lions to Alabama baseball to multiple sports at Iowa and Iowa State, the past month has seen plenty of sordid sports betting stories.
It won’t be a surprise if there’s more to come this spring and summer.
Something like this was bound to happen as more people gained access to what used to have more gatekeepers. Phone apps make temptation much easier to give in to than a bookie named Rocco. Your phone can’t break your legs.
But the truth is that what we’re dealing with right now isn’t new. It’s just the next chapter of a book that keeps getting revised over the decades.
Cincinnati: Baseball’s Sin City
The trouble always starts in Cincinnati.
The Queen City birthed the first great American sports scandal when suspiciously large sums of money were placed on the underdog Reds on the eve of the 1919 World Series. White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte plunked the first batter he faced, signaling confirmation that the Sox would throw the Series.
The shock of the so-called Black Sox throwing the World Series has never really left us. From “The Great Gatsby” to “Field of Dreams,” it’s long remained a subject of pop culture fascination.
Which is part of the reason it was so shocking that the next great baseball betting scandal took place in Cincinnati. You’d think a person living there would know better.
But in the 1980s, MLB hit king and then-Reds manager Pete Rose was caught betting on games. Even though he didn’t bet against his team, Rose suffered the same fate as the eight Black Sox 70 years earlier: banned for life. Ineligible for the Hall of Fame.
At this point you’d assume nobody would be foolish enough to engage in baseball betting shenanigans while in Cincinnati. You’d be smarter to scarf down a bowl of Skyline before an 8-hour road trip.
But sure enough, the Queen City proved the downfall of Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon.
Two weeks ago, Bohannon allegedly informed a bettor at the MGM Sportsbook in Great American Ballpark that his ace would be scratched from a scheduled start against LSU. Go ahead and bet the farm against the Crimson Tide.
Impossibly, this was literally inside the ballpark that pays a subtle tribute to Rose with 14 bats poking out of the signature smokestacks in the outfield. And a much less subtle tribute with a statue outside.
Within a week, they were caught, and Bohannon was without a job. He’ll never coach another college baseball game.
But it may also be just the tip of the iceberg for the newest chapter of college sports betting scandals.
If you build it, they will bet
The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission announced Monday that it is investigating 26 current Hawkeyes athletes and 15 Iowa State athletes for “potential criminal conduct related to sports wagering.”
There’s something appropriate about Iowa being the site of what could prove to be the most wide-ranging sports betting scandal in decades.
It is in an Iowa cornfield, after all, that the Black Sox are finally granted their absolution in “Field of Dreams.”
Sure, it’s a work of fiction. But the short story the film is adapted from?
Written at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, naturally.
That work of fiction is also part of Iowa’s real-life culture now. Just see how easy it is to get an answer to the question “Is this heaven?” when you’re there. The Field of Dreams site in Dyersville has even hosted a pair of MLB games now.
Art imitating life, which has now decided to echo the art. It’s possible 41 Iowa and Iowa State athletes will join the original Eight Men Out, trapped in purgatory.
A nervous time for Iowa athletics
Depending on who is involved, the investigation could be a devastating blow to both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones in many sports.
A probe that began with Iowa baseball has expanded to include athletes on Iowa’s football, men’s basketball, wrestling and track and field teams.
Hawkeyes baseball is already dealing with the sting.
Iowa’s best hitter, Keaton Anthony, was 1 of 4 Hawkeyes held out of last weekend’s series against Ohio State. All are under investigation. For a team on the cusp of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017, the absence of Anthony could prove fatal down the stretch.
The 22 Hawkeyes athletes in other sports have yet to be revealed publicly. But if they are major contributors, it goes without saying that Iowa’s fortunes for next year could turn grim in multiple sports. And that’s to say nothing of potential NCAA sanctions that could come into play.
Of course, being under investigation does not guarantee guilt. But considering how efficiently the process played out in the Bohannon case, there’s reason to be nervous in Iowa.
Someone was bound to learn a hard lesson
To adapt a phrase into more family-friendly terms: Someone was bound to mess around and find out.
It’s never been easier to bet on sports in the United States.
There are 25 jurisdictions (24 states plus Washington, DC) where it’s possible to place a bet on your phone. An additional 8 states have retail-only sports books.
NCAA rules prohibit athletes from betting on any NCAA-sponsored sports, even if they are the professional version of those sports. When your friends can do something that you can’t, some college student was bound to find out the hard way. These won’t be the only 41 student-athletes to come under scrutiny this year.
While many will view this as a peril of expanded legalized gambling, the efficiency of these investigations shows the strength of strict regulation.
College basketball was prone to point-shaving scandals for decades. Every decade from the 1950s through the 2000s, a different program was rocked by the issue. Oftentimes the mob was involved. And it usually took the Feds investigating to blow the lid off the issue.
All of that is out in the open now.
Companies don’t want to be fined or stripped of state licenses, so the self-policing is stringent. Alabama baseball betting was pulled from the board in several states the moment something appeared amiss.
And though no one is accused of anything as nefarious as point-shaving in these Iowa and Iowa State cases, they’re likely to learn a harsh lesson about rule-breaking.
Since no one has been caught before, the first wave of college sports betting violations will make the problem look widespread. But that’s always how it was going to be. People think they can get away with things until someone is caught. And a lot of people probably shared that thought.
It’s unfortunate for those who are caught that they are likely to be made an example. Again, none of them are suspected of betting on or against their own teams. Perhaps not even on the sport they play in. But the rules were in place, and they probably knew they were breaking them.
Precedent is often established harshly. And with that, the issue will eventually fade. The risk will be made to far outweigh the reward.
Until, of course, enough time passes for someone to forget the lesson.
Most likely in Cincinnati.