Hedging Its Bets on the Lottery?

Commercial linking the University of Iowa to state gambling raises concerns for faculty members and the NCAA.
April 9, 2007

The commercial shows a man sitting in what appears to be the University of Iowa's basketball arena. He is wearing Hawkeye gear and singing a parody of the fight song while scratching a lottery ticket.

The advertisement has caused a stir in Iowa, leading some to question the nature of the relationship between the university and the state lottery. Late last week, an athletics advisory group comprised largely of faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of a motion to sever promotional ties with the lottery and all other parts of the state's gaming industry.

The vote by the Presidential Committee on Athletics, which makes recommendations to the athletics department and Iowa's president on policies governing sports, is not binding. But it does illustrate the growing level of discontent on campus -- the committee also includes staff, students and alumni. Iowa’s Faculty Council has already voted to support the ban.

The university receives proceeds from the lottery, which is a state agency. Charles Lynch, chairman of the Presidential Committee on Athletics and a professor of epidemiology, said the lottery has been a "good partner" and that his group is concerned primarily with the implications of the promotional relationship.

Iowa passed legislation nearly 20 years ago allowing riverboat gambling. The Des Moines Register reported -- and the Iowa athletics department confirmed -- that the lottery spent more than $200,000 for advertising and promotion tied to Iowa athletics over the past three years. 

In recent weeks the commercial has become the flashpoint in the discussion -- with many agreeing that it compromised the university's integrity.

"Most people in the university and several outside, including the athletics director, felt that this ad crossed the line," Lynch said. "It went too far in terms of using the insignia, and our concern is that promoting the gaming industry isn’t healthy for student athletes."

The problem in this case, according to Lynch and the athletics department, was insufficient oversight. Mark Abbott, associate director of athletics, said higher ups in the department who should have been asked to review the commercial were not. A more comprehensive review process is now in place, he added.

Abbott said the department will take into consideration the committee's recommendation. Gary Barta, Iowa's director of athletics, and Lynch will take the vote to Gary C. Fethke, Iowa’s interim president. No policy change will come before the end of the academic year, according to Abbott.

Late last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association sent a letter to Iowa brining to its attention that while the promotional relationship is not considered a violation of the association's gambling legislation, it should be "construed as similar to other activities that are not within our legislation but in which we discourage involvement" (e.g., fantasy leagues, licensing poker chips, use of Las Vegas nights as fundraisers, etc.), according to Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's director of agents, gambling and amateurism activities.

Some have also questioned whether a casino company should still be allowed to occupy a luxury suite in the football stadium.

"We do not plan to get into the business of scrutinizing who is buying tickets for our events," Abbott said in an e-mail.

Lynch said his group is asking for clarification about the university's policy on its ties with state gaming. He said the committee has found a provision in its own guidebook that indicates that the university should never have had a connection in the first place. 

John Solow, an associate professor of economics and member of the advisory committee, said he agrees that the advertisement crossed the line. And while he added that his committee was right to come down on the athletics department in this case, he doesn't want to see a blanket policy.

He called specious the argument that colleges have the responsibility of shielding students from any mention of gambling. Students get into trouble with debt, so should the university ban promotional sponsorships with, say, credit card companies, he asked?

"Cutting all ties with the lottery is excessive," Solow said. "The NCAA is rightly concerned about sports betting. But there are clearly people here who think gambling as a whole is immoral and goes against the code of ethics. I don't share that opinion."

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Elia Powers

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