When Arkansas State upset Kansas State last Saturday, Las Vegas shook. The Red Wolves pulled off the stunner with a traveling squad of only 62. They were missing 20 players, including nine starters, the majority of those because of COVID-19.
The issue was that only the wise guys in the desert seemed to know.
Over the course of 40 hours -- from Thursday night to Saturday's noon ET kickoff -- the line on the game in every major Las Vegas sportsbook had shifted 5 points from -9 to -14 for Kansas State. While that wasn't enough for the FBI to come sniffing around, the line shift was significant and did not go unnoticed.
"Somebody knew something about Arkansas State," said Kenny White, veteran betting expert at SportsLine . "They bet that way up."
Usually, when setting game lines, Las Vegas can find out about injuries even when the media, opponents and public cannot.
Unlike the NFL, it's an open loop of information in college. There are student trainers, managers, videographers, friends, wives, girlfriends and players themselves with access to the program.
But COVID-19 isn't a sprained knee. The coronavirus has become a different riddle to oddsmakers. They're trying to get what amounts to the ultimate edge these days in the college betting space: COVID-19 information.
"Impossible," White said.
Not impossible if the Arkansas State information was out there, but the challenge remains. And a market is developing.
"There is one big betting group that is willing to pay big money for [COVID-19 information]," White added. "They've already reached out to me [saying], 'We're willing to pay big money for any type of COVID information you can give us.'"
Complicating the matter: Less than half of FBS programs are sharing information about their COVID-19 positives publicly, according to the New York Times.
Arkansas State certainly didn't on Saturday. Its contest this week against Central Arkansas has already been postponed for what Arkansas State said was "the inability to field a safe number of players" to play the game.
Lincoln Riley's Oklahoma program has been transparent most of the offseason. But after a 48-0 win over Missouri State, Riley said the game had been in jeopardy because of COVID-19 positives on his team.
Prior to the game, Riley said last week he would stop sharing COVID-19 information.
"The problem in this world becomes privacy," Riley said. "That's my biggest concern. That's the world of college football, the world of the internet. There's not much privacy. We come out before a game and say we've had however many positives, then all the people that love to dig and do this and that are going to fight like crazy to find out who that is."
Not necessarily. Federal privacy laws have proved to be a straw man in the COVID-19 argument. They are meant to protect the identities of individuals in medical situations. As long as groups of players are mentioned, transparency shouldn't be an issue.
Without identifying individuals, Texas Tech revealed this week that 75 out of 116 players had tested positive since July. LSU coach Ed Orgeron said "most" of his team had tested positive. That would be a minimum of 55 players.
That's also a lot of information waiting out there for gamblers to disseminate.
"I would hope there's a gentleman's agreement that everyone is going to be up front with the issues as we move forward throughout the season," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "I've been very transparent about COVID, maybe too much. We're setting here at zero [positives]. We've been in unbelievable shape."
White said that bettors who received COVID information last weekend "were very confidential who they gave it to."
Further complicating matters: according to a recent National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) survey, barely one-third of athletes have been compliant with COVID-19 protocols. Less than half of coaches are compliant.
Similar to those college football coaches hiding COVID-19 positives that becomes a public health concerns. (Note: Schools are still required to report COVID-19 cases to university, city and state health officials.)
"It is concerning that there are any breaks in protocol during a pandemic," said NATA president Tory Lindley. "Not only from the perspective of the health of the student-athletes, the staff and the future of the season but for public health in the community."
The gambling aspect of COVID-19 has to be concerning to athletic directors and the NCAA. In May 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 law that prohibited sports betting in most states. Since then, the number of states to adopt single-game sports betting has grown to 18 (plus Washington, D.C.). Four others have bills passed (North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington).
Colorado recently became the first university outside of Nevada to sign a sponsorship deal with a sportsbook. Widespread, nationwide sports betting is coming and it can't be stopped.
"Betting on events with the general public has gone from zero to 100 mph in the last 25 years," said Jimmy Vaccaro, famed oddsmaker at the South Point Hotel sportsbook in Las Vegas. "It has never, ever, ever gone backwards. It keeps growing."
It taints the system when college coaches can't even agree on whether to report injuries. An attempt failed last year to establish a national standardized player availability report.
There is no such confusion in the NFL. Since the 1940s, the NFL has released an injury report. Teams are required to release three practice participation reports during the week. Also, NFL teams are mandated to provide a game status report on Friday (for Sunday games) and in-game injury reports.
However, professional leagues don't have to deal with federal privacy laws in their injury reports. The Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) keep an individual's medical information private.
That means what was always a murky injury situation has been further muddled by COVID-19 in college programs.
"That [injury] information always gets passed on [to gamblers]," White said. "I was dealing with the NCAA for so many years. I said, 'Listen, the right thing to do would be for the bookmakers to have the information first. Because then you have fraudulent activity [identified].'"
White alerted the NCAA to the last major point-shaving scandal in college football. In 2007, he helped the NCAA discover that Toledo running back Scooter McDougle took bribes from a gambler.
White says he is currently analyzes betting markets for the Big Ten and previously did similar work for the Big 12.
The line influence in the Arkansas State-Kansas State game was "methodically done," according to White. "It wasn't all in one shot. It was confidentially done. It was a betting group that said, 'We've got this information. We're not telling anybody why we're betting it though.' They have their tentacles reach out."
White did not identify that betting group.
Georgia Southern proactively announced last week it would be missing 33 players against Campbell. That group included injuries, suspensions and COVID-19 cases.
"I can definitely see why that information is needed," Eagles coach Chad Lunsford said. "I don't want to use the word 'frustrating' … but as long as everybody is having to deal with it the same way, as long as it's fair across the board. I don't know what everybody does with their quarantines. I don't know what everybody does with their positives and return-to-play protocols. I don't know if all that is fair."
Corruption has been avoided so far. White said it would take about a $150,000 bet on a game to indicate an improper line move. Vaccaro said the two biggest bets last week at the South Point were in the $30,000-$40,000 range on the Clemson-Wake Forest game.
Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson was too busy celebrating Saturday to care about what bettors knew.
"We're doing what we need to do," he said. "There are going to be some guys that test positive. [I assume] somebody heard something because the line moves on a daily basis."
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