In professional sports, we have seen officials who have given in to the pressure of sports betting, the most famous being Tim Donaghy in 2007. Donaghy was an NBA referee who was accused and found guilty of personally betting on games that he was going to ref.
Officials in sports may have the hardest job because every call they make will be scrutinized and questioned. Whether it is a pass interference call or a late foul call, every call matters when it comes to sports betting. One call can influence how the spread turns out or whether the game goes over or under the total.
Sports officials make different amounts of money depending on what level they officiate and depending on how big the game is. According to multiple surveys, college football referees have a median salary of $57,014 with bonuses for officiating bowl games and the College Football Playoff. NFL referees have an annual salary of $205,000.
Kevin Mar, a Pac 12 football official, has experienced first-hand the impact officials have on sports bettors. He knows that people will question every call that he makes.
“More eyes are on us officials to make the right calls, and if we don’t, we could be responsible for people losing money,” Mar said in a recent phone interview. “One call I make can affect that. But, hey, that is why I’m in this occupation: to make hard calls for big games.”
When asked whether Mar would ever give up his job as an official to bet on sports, he only had one thing to say.
“I love my job and I would never quit because of betting.”
Todd Zart has been a high school and college official for over 20 years and said he has gambled on sports in the past. Zart knows how hard it can be for somebody to be an official but knows what sports bettors go through watching games.
“I see people trying to bribe officials all the time,” Zart said in a recent interview. “It’s happened to me, and all you can do is decline the bribe and walk away and call the best game that you can.”
Zart believes that it will only get harder for officials as sports gambling becomes more popular and becomes legal in every state.
“There is no way to stop it,” Zart said. “Sports gambling is a big industry and one that continues to grow. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were officials out there that do take money to make a certain call or impact a game in a huge way.”
Alli Johnson, an intramural referee at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has already been warned about the consequences of sports betting as an official.
“In my official training early in the year, the other experienced officials warned me to stay away from sports gambling,” Johnson said before officiating a flag football game. “I take this stuff seriously and believe that you shouldn’t be an official if you are only in it for the money.”
Ryan Bier, Colby Becker and John Zurcher contributed to this story.