Stupid vs. Criminal: the Iowa Gambling Scandal

The sad failure at the heart of the Iowa/Iowa State Sports Gambling Scandal

It is a sports scandal that reveals much about America.

The state of Iowa is an icon.  It is an agricultural place at the center of the country that has a far larger influence than its relatively small population.

Iowa is the purported home of honest, decent folk who work hard all day in farms, fields and barns. The men are supposed to wear baseball caps and be good guys. The women, whatever their age, are supposed to next-door-girl types who wear aprons and ribbons in their hair.  When they speak, Iowans look you in the eye, shake your hand, and tell you the truth. 

The reality is, of course, somewhat different, but still Iowa plays an out-sized role in the American collective unconscious.  It is a place where your grandparents grew up. A countryside of wind-swept honesty: a State both of collective homespun wisdom and innocence.

Such is its cultural importance, the route to the US Presidency starts beside the hot dog and apple pie stands at the Iowa State Fair.

Every four years, in the August before the primary elections, candidates of both parties come to wander the fair ground and speak to the ordinary folk of Iowa. Journalists from the sophisticated parts of Washington or Brooklyn come to sneer at the locals and covertly judge if the main presidential candidates can pass the “beer-drinking test”.  Over their decaf lattes, the outside media ask the question, “Can a political hopeful relate to the average Iowan?”      

It is a rite of passage so important no serious political candidate can avoid it. Donald Trump did not bother attending the first televised Republican debate, but he showed up at the Iowa State Fair.

However, discussion at this year’s Fair and around Iowa was not only about politics – it was about the shame of Iowa collegiate sports. 

There are no major-league, professional sports teams in so small a market as Iowa, but there are university teams that are followed by just about every red-blooded Iowan.  They are an obsession.  A secular religion for many in Iowa and, at the moment, two of them are a source of deep shame. 

Fans at an Iowa State game

America’s Shame

America’s heartland has been rocked by an investigation that has revealed that hundreds of student athletes at the Universities of Iowa and Iowa State have been caught gambling.  A number of them have been arrested and suspended from playing.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this scandal or its symbolism for the rest of America. 

For a non-American reading this post, university sports in this country are a multi-billion-dollar industry that has both economic and cultural import.  People who have never been to a particular college will drive thousands of miles to see their teams play.  When the US Marines landed on the beaches of Pacific Islands to fight the dug-in Japanese soldiers, their ships would blast the ‘fight songs’ of various college teams.  “March Madness,” the annual basketball tournament played between the top university teams in the country, dominates the sporting press and media attention.

However, the Iowa scandal is a sign of the times.   For in the last five years, since the US Supreme Court decided that gambling was a state matter, America has been flooded with a tsunami of bullshit.  State legislatures, court rooms and news sites have been inundated with gambling executives touting the benefits of betting.   Our screens have been filled by high-profile celebrities selling the myth that sports gambling is both easy and non-addictive.

Some American universities have signed covert deals with gambling companies that actively promote betting on their campuses.  At one notorious example, the University administration received a bounty payment of $30 for every student who signed up to the sponsoring bookmaker.  Some colleges were sending out what amounted to advertisements for bookmakers in university-wide e-mails.  Other colleges were touting (it is the right word in this case) “free bets” of their sponsoring bookmakers.

It is difficult to imagine another addictive industry – like tobacco or alcohol – being able to do such a thing. “A free bottle of whiskey for every 12 bottles of beer you drink!” or “University Administrator, imagine the profits!  You get $30 for every student who starts smoking while at your university.” 

Potential Match-Fixing and Unsophisticated Athletes

I spent part of the summer studying the Iowa case and what it reveals about the American sports gambling world. 

First, the bad news,  at least one athlete, and possibly more, have been caught – allegedly – betting against themselves and their own team.  Currently, officials in Iowa deny that any sports event has been compromised.  However, if that is not potential match-fixing, what is?   If this allegation is proven it is very, very bad.  These athletes, if convicted, should be banned from all sports for the rest of their lives. 

However, most of the Iowa athletes are not in this category.  They appear to be unsophisticated young people who got caught up in a toxic culture of addiction. What anti-gambling education – if any – they received seems to have been utterly inadequate. They are now facing, some of them, criminal convictions, the loss of their potential careers and their reputations.

Look, I know match-fixers: 

Match-fixers do not use their Mom’s name to hide their work.

Match-fixers do not have thousands of unsuccessful bets. 

Match-fixers do not consistently lose money.

Yes, you read it all correctly.   A number of the Iowan student athletes were under the legal age – twenty-one – to place bets.  They set up betting accounts under false names or used friends/relatives to set up accounts. A couple of them used their mother or at least used their mother’s name on their accounts. 

These are not the actions of sophisticated match-fixers. These are the actions of teenagers using fake id to buy beer.   This is the level of most of the charges against most of the athletes.

Further more, hundreds of these athletes bet on thousands of different sports events.  Some of them were gambling more than three or four times a day.   This is an indication of gambling addiction.   

They are not alone.  Charlie Baker, the President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA, the organization that administers university sports), revealed in a letter to Nevada politician Dina Titus there have been one-hundred-and-seventy-five infractions and seventeen investigations into sports betting since May 2018. 

These are just the cases that the actually system catches. There may be more, many more.

Certainly, that is the attitude of the Head Coach of the Iowa football team Kirk Ferentz, who said, “There’s 49 states where I promise you, the guys in our investigation and at the other school aren’t the only ones who could be in an investigation.  Let’s acknowledge it, let’s admit what it is, and let’s figure out how to approach it and intelligently move it.”

Despite the NCAA being a multi-billion dollar industry, it does not pay its athletes a salary.  Thus, it was always going to be the league most at risk from gambling.   The NCAA claims that because they have signed deals with various companies that monitor the betting market all is relatively safe.   They point to a similar scandal that occurred this spring at Louisiana State University (LSU) where a baseball coach was caught betting against his own team.  The problem with this example was that the coach was so dim-witted that he actually went to a casino where he was caught on video sending signals to his betting buddy. Full marks to the system for catching such an idiot, but really it is hardly a shining light of investigative technique.

Lessons to Learn

Overall, the lesson to take from this scandal is … really?!  I mean, really????!!!!!! 

This is Corporate America’s defence against match-fixing and gambling addiction among young athletes!?  The defence that the legal and vastly profitable gambling industry has been advocating since May 14, 2018? The defence intoned by po-faced betting executives, “We are actually making sports integrity better. We are dragging it out of the illegal markets so that gambling can be monitored and any integrity challenges can be observed by our well-trained staff.”


Because to an independent observer the Iowa betting scandal looks like a colossal failure on the part of both the gambling industry and the NCAA.

Here are the facts gathered from law enforcement documents about the Iowa and Iowa State cases:

  1. Hundreds of athletes at two campuses bet for more than a year on thousands of different sports events and lost tens-of-thousands of dollars and yet it was only two years after these bets were begun to be placed that there was a public investigation.

2. There was a deep and engrained culture of gambling among the athletes at these two institutions. It cut across different sports, different academic years and different athletes. Some of the students made thousands of bets over 13 months and no one stopped them.  This inaction to stop the students betting was, presumably, because they were mostly losing their bets.  If any of them had consistently won, they would have been kicked off their betting sites sooner than most bookmakers can sneeze.

3. The athletes ranged from the relatively minor sports of the NCAA to the top stars of their football teams. Hunter Dekkers, one of the people caught up in the culture of gambling, was a starting quarterback.   Eyioma Uwazurike, another student, made it to the NFL. If the gambling industry cannot monitor important athletes at this level than their system is broken.  

Finally, is there any American, anywhere, who thinks the student-athletes at Iowa and Iowa State are exceptions?   Is there a person who follows American college sports or see the amount of gambling advertising that permeates American culture who does not think that Coach Ferentz is correct and that with a small amount of investigation we could not find similar situations among students in dozens of different campuses across America?  There must be some such person. I assume they spend most of their days figuring out whether Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the Great Pumpkin are the greatest super-hero. For the rest of us, American university sports and the gambling industry have a massive credibility problem.

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