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Dozens of student athletes in Iowa came under investigation for sports gambling

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Sports gambling is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia, but the NCAA considers it a violation for student athletes, coaches and staff to gamble. So what's happening in Iowa and Alabama? In the last week, dozens of student athletes at the University of Iowa and Iowa State came under investigation for gambling, and the University of Alabama fired baseball coach Brad Bohannon. Chris Vannini is a senior writer with The Athletic, and he's with us from Dallas. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS VANNINI: Hi. Good to be here.

PFEIFFER: Chris, these two alleged gambling violations, can you describe how the NCAA caught wind of them? And start with Coach Brad Bohannon in Alabama if you would.

VANNINI: Yeah. So first off, they appear to be very separate situations. The Alabama situation - on a Friday before a game, a suspicious bet was placed in a Cincinnati sportsbook on the Alabama-LSU baseball game. Not long after that, the Alabama starting pitcher was pulled before the game started. The person who placed the bet may have been on the phone with somebody, and it drew the eyebrows of the sportsbook who reported it to U.S. Integrity, which is their monitoring service, which works with a lot of sportsbooks and gaming commissions and pro leagues. It was flagged within minutes, and very quickly, Alabama games were pulled off, meaning you couldn't bet on them anymore because it was suspicious. We don't exactly know how Alabama figured things out, but less than a week later, the Alabama coach was fired.

PFEIFFER: Absolutely. And what made it suspicious, by the way? Was it just a lot of money?

VANNINI: They have not released that. There are a few different things that can raise a red flag. It could be a very large bet, especially on something like college baseball that does not get large bets. It could be something like a new account created or an account that doesn't bet very much suddenly doing a big bet. There are a lot of things in place to catch these things that might be suspicious bets that are looked into.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And what about the student athletes in Iowa? What happened there?

VANNINI: Iowa said that on May 2, they were notified of some information - potentially criminal, potential NCAA bylaw violations - that were flagged by the gaming commission. There doesn't appear to be any integrity issues, meaning it wasn't like they were point shaving or something like that. But that's an example of NCAA rules say that college athletes cannot bet on any sport that is sponsored by the NCAA. A baseball player can't bet on the NBA finals, for example. So that's where these situations within Iowa and at Alabama seem to be pretty different.

PFEIFFER: What's the reason that student athletes are prohibited from gambling?

VANNINI: Obviously, sports betting was illegal and for most of the country up until 2018 when the Supreme Court kind of withdrew that federal ban, and now it's opened up. But the NCAA is concerned about all sorts of things - players becoming problem gamblers to leading to point-shaving scandals. There have been a lot of point-shaving scandals throughout the history of college sports - Arizona State basketball in 1994, Tulane basketball in 1985. You can go back to the '40s and find some of these that involved organized crime, so it's been an issue in college sports for a while.

PFEIFFER: The fact that they flagged these two cases in Iowa and Alabama as suspicious, does that tell us the system - is it sort of working?

VANNINI: That is what the people in the gambling world will tell you because sports betting is one of the most monitored things you can have because the integrity is the entire point of it. These sportsbooks want to make money, so they want you to feel like the games are on the up and up, and it's worth doing. So they want to catch people who are doing illegal things as well. The 1994 Arizona State basketball point-shaving scandal was discovered and reported by sportsbooks in Nevada. So if everybody works together, they believe you can catch a lot more people.

PFEIFFER: That's Chris Vannini, a senior writer with The Athletic. Thank you very much.

VANNINI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.