Commentary: Legalized sports betting shows the Big Ten’s recent tradition of cutting corners

By Chris Kwiecinski
Medill Reports

The unthinkable happened to the Big Ten coaches on May 14, 2018: tradition was changed. The natural order was shattered. Comfort became the uncomfortable.

In reality, the U.S. Supreme Court just legalized sports gambling across the nation.

This was a metaphysical thorn in the sides of all 14 Big Ten coaches. It was also one of the first topics addressed on the first day of Big Ten Media Days, and it carried over across both July 23 and 24. But, that’s because it just cost coaches a competitive advantage.

“Avoid it like the plague,” Harbaugh said of what he told his players gambling. “Don’t walk away from that, run.”

It almost seemed like Harbaugh was talking to himself.

As reporters asked more and more about the impact sports gambling would have on college football, it was evident that none of the coaches really knew or wanted to know. Such is the Big Ten, which will always try to be as old school as a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-one.

Still, it’s one thing to willingly seek out how college football will change with legal gambling, and another to avoid it all because of how it takes away a competitive advantage.

When asked about if gambling would change college football, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio said he’s wondered about it and has an opinion on it, but said he has too many other things to think about as the season approaches.

Penn State’s James Franklin, who was seemingly fed up with questions about gambling, said betting has already been going on, either legally now or illegally in the past, so he didn’t expect much to change.

But change was in the air, and it loomed in the form of a potential weekly injury report. While coaches faced questions on that topic head on, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney changed the title of the issue altogether.

“I don’t call it an injury report as much as I think about it as player availability,” Delaney said. “Whether that comes out of an injury or whether it comes out of eligibility or comes out of some transgression of one kind or another, I think we need to do that.”

The idea of a weekly injury report applies to Harbaugh the most, as his gamesmanship is why he withheld depth charts before every game last season and might be why there was no Michigan media guide from the media day’s home page.

Harbaugh did say he would be fine with doing an injury report, but whether or not he complies with any request remains to be seen.

This kind of change comes down to accountability between programs, the conference and coaches. Another notable change, which was passed last June, is the new redshirt rule. This allows players to play up to four games and still redshirt an entire season.

That rule wasn’t much of an issue, though. After all, it allows coaches to get specific players real, meaningful playing reps in their first year while still getting four years out of a player.

Realistically, the redshirt rule is a boon for coaches, but an injury report is a loss of competitive advantage. Putting it that way, it’s no wonder why coaches don’t like dealing with the subject of gambling.

A more notable, and outspoken, outcry came from Big Ten coaches in 2016 when the NCAA placed a ban on satellite camps. These camps, hosted in other states, allowed the likes of Harbaugh and Franklin to establish recruiting presences in SEC and Big 12 states.

While the Big Ten prides itself on traditions like “Doting the I” at Ohio State, playing “Jump Around” in fourth quarters at Wisconsin and touching the banner at Michigan, the most old school conference in America also has a knack for trying to cut corners.

It also has a knack for pouting when those avenues are taken away.

Photo at top: Kirk Ferentz (left), Jim Harbaugh (middle) and Urban Meyer (right) speak to the media during Big Ten Media Days. (Chris Kwiecinski and Jake Reipma/MEDILL)