Whitley: Gambling is here. Bet on schools selling their souls

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun

I have seen the future, and it’s quite a night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium & Casino.

It’s 2034, and Florida is playing Vanderbilt. Fans are lined up to place bets and buy a pack of official UF marijuana. Then they’ll head back to their seating pod and order a bottle of Gators champagne in anticipation of UF snapping the Commodores’ 22-game winning streak.

OK, I’m probably going too far with Vandy becoming a football powerhouse. Then again, whoever thought we’d see colleges cozying up to booze, gambling, pot and other “sin” industries?

The slide into utter hypocrisy has been gradual, but we’ll hit a milestone Friday. That’s when sports gambling becomes legal in Florida, thanks to a compact the state signed with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Court challenges are delaying things a bit, but Floridians will soon be able to bet on pro, college and Olympic sports.

Fans already can in Louisiana, and that led to LSU becoming the first SEC school to sign a sponsorship deal with a sportsbook. Tiger Stadium hasn’t been renamed Caesars Stadium yet. But when the Gators visit this weekend, they’ll look up at the Caesars Sportsbook Skyline Club and see sportsbook signs around the stadium.

What do Vegas and Baton Rouge have in common?

“We share a clear vision of how athletics and entertainment can come together to enhance the fan experience,” LSU athletics director Scott Woodward said.

What they see is money.

Sports gambling will generate $2.1 billion in the U.S. this year. It’s expected to be five times that much by the end of the decade.

That's a tempting revenue stream, but aren’t colleges supposed to look out for their students — a demographic that is prone to compulsive gambling and binge drinking?

Principles be damned, LSU and others are going to join the gold rush.

I really shouldn’t go on a Holier-Than-Thou rant. Gannett became the first major U.S. newspaper publisher to partner with a sportsbook in July. That’s why you see a “Tipico” ad at the top of the sports website.

If it really bothered me, I could always go work for Publix. But here I am.

At least Gannett never took a corporate stand against gambling and alcohol. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue once testified on Capitol Hill in support of a bill that would limit sports betting to Nevada.

Now the NFL has four official sportsbook partners. I'd say pro leagues would sell their souls for a dollar, but that assumes they have souls. Colleges once tried to be different.

UF President Bernie Machen severed all university ties with beer companies, banned the nickname “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” and said alcohol abuse poses “a grave present and potential threat to the well-being of our students.”

That was so 2005.

Now you can hit the UF beer garden before kickoff or enjoy a rum and coke during games if you have a premium seat. The Gators are hardly alone at what’s becoming the World’s Greatest Hypocrisy Party.

The University of Colorado has a sponsorship deal with a cannabis company. At Wake Forest, a school founded to teach Baptist ministers, has an official lager — Deacon’s Brew.

Administrators cite studies showing how selling alcohol cuts down on binge drinking. They point out that schools don’t really make that much money off the stuff.

That’s true, but their real concern is ticket revenue. Fans are increasingly watching games from the comforts of their homes. Colleges have to offer more than wooden planks to sit on and watered-down Cokes to drink.

The pandemic heightened business pressures. It’s not easy paying coaches seven-figure salaries and funding Title IX sports that lose millions. But amid all those numbers, these get shuffled aside:

Alcohol contributes to 1,519 student deaths annually, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In a 16-year span, alcohol played a role in 696,000 assaults and 97,000 sexual assaults on campuses.

The Dr. Fauci types were all for shutting down stadiums if it saved just one life. Might turning off the taps at games do the same?

Even if it didn’t, Machen realized you can’t preach against alcohol abuse with one hand and serve it with the other. And now we have a new ex-taboo to juggle. Unlike booze or drugs, you can keep gambling without passing out.

“People get addicted quicker and spiral out of control much faster,” said Jennifer Kruse, the executive director of The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling. “With compulsive gambling, there is no saturation point.”

Studies show that college students are twice as likely to be addicted as the overall population. About 6% of college students have gambling problems. That works out to about 3,500 students at UF.

Compulsive gamblers are likely to commit crimes to fund their addiction and be involved in domestic violence. They suffer depression and substance abuse at far higher rates.

LSU has bigger worries, like enhancing the fan experience at football games. So, when will the Gators have an official sportsbook?

“We’ve not been approached right now. We would not allow that,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “But you know, there’s a lot of things we used to not allow that we allow these days.’’

That’s why you can close your eyes and see the future. There’s a lot of money to be made, but the societal costs could be astronomical.

The shame is how many colleges are willing to pay that price.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley