UNLV Football Slot Machine Prompts Ethical Debate

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The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) football slot machine, Rebel Roller, “wins” every time. UNLV Rebels players, some of whom are under 21, pull the one-armed bandit to celebrate turnovers. Before the three reels even spin, the celebrating player already knows there’s no payout. Nothing. The visual prop doesn’t even spill out Gatorade.

So is it okay for college players who can’t gamble online or in a casino to pull that lever?

Is it right that children watching the game on television see underage “gamblers”?

Or is it Vegas, baby?

That ethical debate took place on social media this week after the Aug. 27 Idaho State vs. UNLV game in Las Vegas.

Richard Schuetz got the talk going with his Aug. 28 retweet of a Caesars Sportsbook video. The recording showed UNLV senior Austin Bawa Ajiake “gambling” to teammate cheers after his interception and 46-yard return.

Although Ajiake, a 2018 graduate of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Calif., is likely of legal age to win a jackpot, his winning spin yielded no money.

Sill, Schuetz tweets about Ajiake’s audience:

Having underage UNLV students celebrate by playing a slot machine on national television has to be an image that Las Vegas tourism loves. One wonders if the faculty and administration of UNLV want their image as an institute of higher learning shaped by underage gambling, too.

Jamie Salsburg, a blog author who hosts the After Gambling Podcast, tells Bonus.com:

Richard is right in expressing concern that the risks might outweigh the rewards, from an industry perspective.

Is Age Just a Number for the UNLV Football Slot Machine?

NCAA rules, of course, prohibit wagering.

However, if there’s no money involved, is the UNLV football slot machine really a gambling device?

Without going down the rabbit hole of debating 18-plus social casinos, skill games, and free online slots, let’s just look at the 700-pound gorilla in the room.

In other words, let’s discuss the machine that lives on the sidelines of Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nev.

It has to stay there because the UNLV football slot machine that’s the team’s only mascot of sorts can’t go to road games due to “gaming rules.”

Here’s how ESPN put it when the UNLV football slot machine was installed in October 2021:

The Rebel Roller is a nod to Las Vegas’ gambling roots. The machine’s giant screen has “UNLV” printed on it along with “Be A Rebel,” and Las Vegas’ 702 area code is also featured on the machine.

So one way UNLV Rebels fans watching games on television will always know the game is at home is if they see the Rebel Roller on the sidelines.

Salsburg sums up the ethical issues for Bonus.com today:

I see age-restricted products as creating this grey area where all views are rooted in truth. So it gets complicated quickly. Any take thrown against the wall will stick. Another industry executive could look at it and not share the same concern. And they could be right as well for a different set of reasons.

Social Media Reactions Are Mostly Black and White

The UNLV football slot machine seems to be loved or hated.

Approval often comes in all caps.

UNLVRebelGrl tweets today:

UNLV’s slot machine the Rebel Roller is by far the best prop. It’s original and it is representative of our city.

Disapproval is just as absolute.

Feda Mecan replies to Caesars on Aug. 29:

These are underage players…disgusting

However, some nuance shows up in replies to Schuetz, when they’re not ad hominem attacks against him.

Corby Lange responds to Schuetz by saying an ethics debate is moot.

He mentions the “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) deals university athletes can now pursue:

Ship sailed pal. NCAA has made it very clear this is no longer about student athletes, in pursuit of academic,along with athletic lessons. These are free agent pros, playing for pay, with the chance for bigger payday, wearing school uniforms for advertising. NCAA=sellouts @NCAA

Ted Hartwell replies to Schuetz on Aug. 29:

Well meaning, but ill-advised at best. And I’m sorry to see Caesars, usually one of the better orgs in the industry when it comes to responsible gambling messaging, promoting it.

UNLV Football Has a History of Controversy

Perhaps the UNLV football slot machine will become the team’s new mascot, in a way.

At first glance, it seems odd that the Rebel Roller would stir up controversy now. After all in October 2021, then 23-year-old Charles “Chuck Wagon” Williams made the inaugural pull.

However, this week’s debate makes sense once it’s put in context.

In January 2021, the team retired the Hey Reb! mascot in favor of the “Spirit Mark” of “UNLV.”

It seems Hey Reb! reminded viewers too much of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. That mental association happens even though Nevada didn’t become a state until 1864, when it was under Union authority.

UNLV explains of the Hey Reb! retirement:

The mascot drew criticism in recent years, and multiple university administrations wrestled with finding a solution representative of varying perspectives while also acknowledging the campus’ rich diversity. Hey Reb’s retirement in 2021 followed the removal of a statue from the university campus in June 2020 – through a mutual decision with the donor – and the subsequent refrain from its use in the traditional areas of student recruitment and athletics throughout the fall of 2020.

What’s the Right Age to Discuss Gambling?

In general, responsible gambling advocates say educating minors about wagering is more responsible than leaving them ignorant.

Most recently, the Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) issued a statement regarding educating students about gambling. The board regulates Michigan online casino, poker, and sports betting.

On Sept. 1, the press release quotes MGCB Executive Director Henry Williams:

As fall sports begin, it’s a great time to remind everyone to have fun responsibly when wagering on sporting events throughout the season. During September, the MGCB wants to raise awareness of responsible gaming – particularly among young people – and joins the American Gaming Association and its members as they introduce Responsible Gaming Education Month. The MGCB will use its social media channels throughout the month to help raise responsible gaming awareness in Michigan.
MGCB’s statement goes on to cite research from the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) and EarthWeb:
  • Between 60% and 80% of high school students say they gambled for money in the past year
  • 4% to 6% of high school students are considered addicted to gambling
  • 6% of American college students battle against gambling problems

Salsburg concludes for Bonus.com that the UNLV football slot machine “is a perfect case study to highlight the complexities that come with age-restricted products. I find myself agreeing with the main points made by all sides of the discussion, despite the fact they are coming from opposing views. There’s a discussion there to be had and I hope we dive in and continue to pursue it.”

About the Author

Heather Fletcher

Heather Fletcher is the lead writer at Bonus, concentrating on online casino coverage. She had her first published byline at age 10, but didn't get paid for her writing until she got her first newspaper job. Fletcher's newspaper career started at Suburban News Publications in Ohio and eventually took her to The New York Times, where she's still a contract freelance reporter for the National Desk. She covers breaking news from Philadelphia, as needed. In March 2021, Fletcher began writing about online casino gambling as the lead writer for Online Poker Report.

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