Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss all kick off the new football season Saturday and for the first time ever Mississippians can legally bet on their favorite teams at more than 20 of the state’s casinos.

While state regulated sports betting will mean badly needed added revenue for Mississippi, it has meant extra precautions for the athletic directors at the state’s three NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) universities.

Athletic directors Ross Bjork of Ole Miss, John Cohen of Mississippi State and Jon Gilbert at Southern Miss this week issued a joint letter to the editor to Mississippi newspapers. See below.

The letter, the athletic directors say, was one more precaution of the many they have taken prevent legalized sports betting from negatively affecting their student-athletes.

Cohen said Mississippi State has increased security at its football practices. All three athletic directors have met with Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. All three have had discussions with their peers at UNLV and the University of Nevada, which have long operated in a state where sports betting is legal. All three have instituted comprehensive education programs, not only for student-athletes but also for all coaches and athletic staff.

All three universities are banning not only student-athletes – but all athletic staff – from entering a sports booking operation.

“We have spent an inordinate amount of time educating not only our student-athletes but all the people they often come into contact with,” Cohen said. “I have had eyeball to eyeball contact with not only every athlete but with every student manager, every student trainer and others who are connected to our program. We have been vigilant.”

Bjork said Ole Miss has brought in law enforcement personnel to speak to the football team. Cohen said videos have been shown to all student-athletes. Gilbert has visited with casino operators on the Gulf Coast to enlist help in keeping any USM athletic personnel from casinos.

Thus far, other than State adding security for practices, no personnel has been added to police sports betting at Ole Miss, State or USM. Compliance staffs at each school will police the situation. Ole Miss has a compliance staff of eight, State five and USM three.

Ross Bjork Credit: University of Mississippi

“Gambling is a topic we always have covered with our compliance people,” Bjork said. “Now that it’s legal and you can drive down the road in your own backyard to legally make a bet it becomes that much more of a concern. Workload-wise, our compliance people will share the duties of preventing legalized sports betting from affecting our student-athletes.”

Said Cohen, a former Mississippi State baseball star, “I go back to my own college days and I know that if gambling were legal, I would have known a lot of students and friends who were going to casinos to make bets. If it’s legal, you assume it’s OK. We have to make sure that everyone knows it’s not OK in any way for our athletes or staff to be involved.”

Allen Godfrey, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. Credit: Mississippi Gaming Commission

Godfrey said the gaming commission will help the universities in any way it can.

“We’re all on the same team in this,” Godfrey said. “We want to help in any way. We’re on the same team. Any concern they have, we will address.”

Godfrey has pledged that the gaming commission will alert the athletic directors” if anything looks suspicious.”

Gambling scandals have occurred throughout the history of college athletics, primarily with athletes, usually basketball players, taking money to shave points. A Mississippi State player was involved in once such scandal during the 1960-61 season. Jerry Graves, one of State’s best players on a championship team, was implicated in an FBI investigation. He denied shaving points and said he only “provided information” to gamblers. Nevertheless, Graves was banned from the NBA.

“If there’s a red flag anywhere, the gaming commission has promised to let us know about it,” Bjork said.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.