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Amid growing harassment against players, NCAA calls for ban on prop bets

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is Final Four weekend in college basketball. On the women's side, Iowa and South Carolina will play for the title tomorrow. The men's semifinals are tonight, and it is a big weekend for sports betting - maybe, in some cases, too big. The president of the NCAA, Charlie Baker, is raising concerns about the amount of abuse being directed at college athletes by bettors, people who put money down on a point spread or a specific play someone may or may not make during a game, are increasingly taking out their losing frustrations by attacking players on social media. Baker said this week that 1 in 3 student athletes has been harassed by bettors. He and the NCAA are now urging states to ban prop betting on college sports.

New Yorker staff writer Jay Caspian Kang has written about the world of prop betting, including a recent piece called "Online Gambling Is Changing Sports For The Worse." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAY CASPIAN KANG: Hey, thanks for having me.

DETROW: I feel like it wasn't that long ago that pro sports didn't want to be in Las Vegas because of concerns about gambling, and now you've got ads for casinos on the field. You've got sportsbooks in stadiums in many places. It feels like every single commercial break is just promoting one online thing or another. It just feels like suddenly pervasive on all elements of sports, which is - which seems to be leading to some of the problems here.

KANG: Yeah. I think that, you know, there's a lot of reasons for that. You know, the dynamic that you're talking about is absolutely true. But when trying to figure out why that's happened, I think a lot of it, like many explanations in the entertainment industry, is because of a move to streaming, uncertainty over what television rights deals are going to look like.

And a league like the NBA, for example, that used to derive most of its revenue from big TV deals with ESPN or with Disney, whatever company - NBC - it used to do, there's just a lot more questions about what that's going to look like in 10 years. And when somebody is holding a giant bag of money and saying, you know, we will support you through these uncertain times, it's sometimes hard for these leagues to say no.

DETROW: And can you just explain how the prop bet and, beyond that, the increased focus on single-game parlays, how that plays into all of this?

KANG: Yeah. These betting app companies are incentivized to offer something called a prop bet. A prop bet is whether or not a certain player is going to do over or under a certain thing, right? So over and under, let's say scoring 25 points for LeBron James tonight in his NBA game. What you can do now is that you can string a lot of these bets together into something called a parlay, where, you know, if all the bets hit, then you get a big payout for it.

Let's say you bet, like, eight different single-game props. You string them all together. You bet $5. Sometimes, you know, that number can turn into five figures or six figures. So it's basically a lot more lotto-like, a lot longer odds, a lot bigger payouts and that this fuels a lot of excitement on social media because the betting apps can say things like, he only bet $5, and now he's sitting, you know, in a sportsbook. And maybe he'll win 600,000 and his life will be changed.

DETROW: And on top of that, you pointed out in your article that that encouraging this type of betting usually makes a lot more money for the casinos because the odds are so high that they're going to pay out. So bottom line, you're just seeing a lot more of this, which leads to what the focus has been on over the last few days, even though it isn't anything new, just the amount of contact between the people making these bets and losing, who then go on to harass players in one way or another. It seems to be, if not picking up, we seem to be focusing on it more. Does this surprise you?

KANG: Well, it's gotten worse. And look, I am not a betting Pollyanna. I myself bet quite a bit, and, you know, I would say I am on the anti-alarmist side of a lot of these things. But in terms of the abuse that these players get, I mean, it is - that has really increased. And that's just because of social media, obviously, is making the players more accessible. But social media has been around for 10 years. If you just search any player's name, you'll see it, right? You'll just see, how did - why, did you grab that extra rebound? I had the under for you on rebounds, and there'll be a string of epithets after that, right?

I think that when it's professional players - right? - making 20, $30 million a year, that I think it's unpleasant and it's unfortunate, but perhaps you can make an argument that those salaries are, in part, garnered by the partnerships that the leagues have with the betting companies. Whatever type of rationalization that you want to make.

DETROW: Do you think that that's something that makes sense, scaling that back, at least when it comes to college sports?

KANG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, for sure. I think that sports gambling, if it's going to work, it just needs to be regulated a lot, like cigarettes were regulated. I think it should be legal, but I think there needs to be safeguards for teenagers and young people. I think there needs to be regulations on the amount of marketing that there can be, and I think there needs to be regulation on the types of bets that can be placed.

I had experience - I go to Las Vegas every March Madness first weekend. And, you know, I was placing a bet, and I saw that I could place a bet on whether a player at Colgate - right? - which is a tiny not basketball (ph) school in upstate New York, whether or not a guy on Colgate was going to score more than 12.5 points. And I was just like, this is, you know - doesn't feel right.

DETROW: Yeah.

KANG: You know, like, the kid is not getting any benefit from this, right? And so really, like, what are we doing at this point, right? There needs to be some at least basic lip service or fealty plays towards some sort of integrity of these games. Like, we can't - we've gone well beyond the line of acceptability on some of this stuff, I think.

DETROW: I like that you described the first round Vegas scene as a bunch of self-aware dudes awkwardly in quarter-zip sweaters holding Bud Lights or something like that.

KANG: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: It was a pretty apt description.

KANG: Yeah. Yeah. I used to - when I was much younger, I used to look on those guys with a great deal of sadness. And now I realized that at the age of 44, I'm just one of them (laughter).

DETROW: OK.

KANG: The younger version of me is looking at me being like, what is that dude doing here? (Laughter) He's trying to, you know, party it up, you know, go home to your kids. Yeah (laughter).

DETROW: That's Jay Caspian Kang, a staff writer at The New Yorker and in middle age, but that's OK. Thanks for joining us.

KANG: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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