How discussions on booze, gambling became a part of the SEC meetings

DESTIN, Fla.—It was the kind of conversation that would have been unthinkable just five years ago at the SEC Spring Meetings.

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But here we were on Wednesday talking to coaches and athletics directors--OUT LOUD--about gambling and alcohol. I’m not saying that coaches and athletics directors have never talked about gambling and alcohol at these meetings. They certainly have. But until now—and this is a bit of oversimplification-- the context of those discussions has always been “keep everybody away from these things. They are bad.”

This week these once-taboo subjects have become agenda items that could potentially turn into new revenue streams for college athletics.

“Amazing,” said Ross Bjork, the director of athletics at Ole Miss. “The world changes quickly.”

Let’s start with gambling.

On May 14 the United States Supreme Court made a ruling that gave all 50 states the right to organize betting on sports. Suddenly the people who run college sports have had to accept—and start preparing for—the possibility that legal betting on their games could be coming to their state in the not-too-distant future.

The question being asked here this week among SEC officials is: “If gambling is coming and there is nothing we can do to prevent it what, if anything, should we be doing about it?”

Someone asked SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey whether or not college athletics should embrace sports gambling as an inevitable part of doing business.

“I don’t think we’re looking to embrace it (gambling),” said Sankey. “I think the word is ‘understand.’ That is the word I would use.”

There are so many questions and so few answers right now. Look, gamblers have been trying to get inside information on football teams since the leather helmet days. And just about every male I know who went to college knew where he could get a bet down. So this is not new.

But the sheer numbers of people who would have to be educated about this is enormous in college football.

“An NFL team has 53 players and those guys can be fenced off in the football complex,” said Sankey. “In college football the number is twice that and you have a huge support staff. And then all of those people leave and go to class. There are so many more entry points into your football program.”

There is no question that the educational component should there be legalized gambling would be significantly bigger than the NFL. How are you going to pay for that?

In the early going it appears the NBA and NFL will work with legalized gambling and get a cut of the action for supplying the product upon which people will wager. Should college athletics work with organized gambling after decades of warning its players to stay away from it? Should they take a slice of the pie in order to fund the educational costs they will incur?

And here is one I just thought of: Do the schools want to create yet another revenue stream that even further widens the financial gap between themselves and the student-athletes? Again, more bad optics for college sports.

“We have had these conversations previously,” said Sankey. “Some of these issues are not new to us. We are (however) in a new dynamic.”

What are you going to do about injury reports?

The NFL has a mandatory injury report and status of players prior to each week’s games. College football has left the dissemination of such information up to each conference or each team. Coaches, by their nature, try to hold that information back so as not to lose what they believe is a competitive advantage.

What if the new rules of the road called for a weekly injury report in college football? Would this violate federal HIPPA laws that prohibit universities from releasing health information about their students? If players don’t waive their rights then schools cannot release injury information.

Coaches really don’t want to touch this subject. It scares them to death. Every time a media person asks about injuries they wonder. Tennessee athletics director Phillip Fulmer, a hall of fame coach, understands why.

“It’s about the integrity of the game. That is what concerns us all,” said Fulmer. “We don’t know what the future is going to look like on this but we all have to protect the integrity of the game.”

Again, none of this is new. But if gambling on college sports is legal more people are going to gamble on college sports. That much we know.

Now let’s talk about booze. If you’ve been to a college football game, particularly in the South, you know there is no shortage of libations at the tailgating parties outside the stadium.

But in the SEC you can’t buy a beer once you get inside the stadium. In fact, the SEC has a conference-wide policy that prohibits the sale of alcohol inside its stadiums except for the private luxury suites.

“We’ve had an ongoing dialogue about alcohol in our stadiums,” said Sankey. “But it hasn’t produced a change.”

Well, it turns out that some of the conference members would like to talk about that policy this week. And that conversation could lead to a new policy that leaves the alcohol issue up to the individual schools.

West Virginia has been selling beer at football games since 2011. Ohio State, Penn State, and Texas have all found a tidy extra revenue stream by selling beer inside the stadium.

“I need more data to be honest with you,” South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner told The State newspaper of Columbia. “I’m not one that sits around and says ‘Well, if we sold beer, we’d make X amount of money and be able to invest in our student-athletes and build more buildings and provide resources.’ That’s attractive, but I need more data to make me comfortable that it is the right thing to do.”

Some schools like the SEC rule because it gives them cover with fans who want to get beer inside the stadium. “We can’t serve beer inside our stadium because there is an SEC rule,” goes the thinking.

As one who has been coming to the SEC Spring meetings here since 1989, the mere fact that the schools are TALKING about this stuff is news.

Things change. Sometimes things change very quickly. Stay tuned.