Some of the fondest memories for Amani Toomer from his time at the University of Michigan involved beating the Buckeyes.
That’s not happening nowadays in Ann Arbor, and there’s not much he can do about Ohio State dominating his Wolverines year after year.
But in his post-playing days, Toomer is preaching about one of his first memories from college. It’s a subject that was drilled into him, a danger that lurked around high-level athletes: Gambling.
A 13-year NFL wide receiver with the New York Giants, Toomer spoke to PlayMichigan in a phone conversation from Denmark about his role as a spokesman for the GVC Foundation to help root out problem gambling.
But what stood out the most was Toomer’s criticism of coach Jim Harbaugh and the current state of the Michigan football program, particularly on that ever-important annual Saturday in late November.
Toomer feeling blue about Harbaugh’s program
Toomer is frustrated with the current Michigan football standard.
Harbaugh has brought Michigan back to consistent winning but another consistency has Toomer among the troubled alums. In five seasons, Harbaugh has yet to beat Ohio State.
“I’m really disappointed,” Toomer said. “I want Michigan to be a lot better, and for people to be kind of just accepting 8-4, or we’re in the top whatever… To me, that’s just not Michigan.
“We haven’t even won a Big Ten title, we haven’t even been to a Big Ten title game. That, to me, just blows my mind. Growing up, you thought of the Big Ten, you thought of Michigan and that was it. I grew up in California, I didn’t even know Wisconsin had a team. There were teams that I had never even heard of that we’re now losing to.”
“It’s tough to look at Michigan, and it seems like we’re all about wearing Michael Jordans, and we’re going to Italy. It’s just totally different from the Michigan that I was: ‘Those who stay will be champions.'”
“That was what it was. Now it’s like, I want them to get back. I don’t want to sound like an angry old man, but it’s just not what I expect from the school that I went to. I just expect more. It’s disheartening that people are accepting and the standard is being lowered. That, to me, is really the hard part about the whole thing.”
Michigan coaches emphasized gambling early
Gary Moeller and Toomer’s other head coach in college, Lloyd Carr, used to feast on coach John Cooper and the Buckeyes.
Moeller went 3-1-1 against OSU, and Carr won six of his first nine against the Buckeyes. Since then, Ohio State has won 15 times against Michigan, losing just once.
But before all that, Toomer also recalled what Moeller and his staff emphasized to the players when they came in as freshmen.
For all the perils facing big-time college football players in the early 1990s, Toomer said it wasn’t drugs, women, or even classroom diligence that was drilled into the wide receiver’s brain. It was gambling.
“The first thing that they taught us when we walked in was about gambling,” Toomer said. “They said, ‘Look, there’s a lot of things you can do where people will give you a second chance. But if you get caught up in gambling, you will not have a second chance in football.
“That was pretty much scared into us from day one.”
Toomer said he never gambled during his fine Wolverines’ stint nor his time with the Giants.
Gambling program aimed at former players, Black athletes
Toomer will connect with current and former NFL players in virtual and live settings to spread the message.
The 45-year-old is a trustee with the GVC Foundation US, which partnered with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and EPIC Risk Management for the outreach.
Toomer said he especially wants to connect with Black athletes, who are statistically more susceptible to gambling’s pitfalls.
“I can’t tell you why but the percentage of Black athletes who become problem gamblers is much higher than the demographics,” Toomer said. “That was another reason why I felt like it was important for me to get on these campuses and talk to these different players because I had never even heard that.”
Toomer said GVC wants to see responsible gambling rule the day. The former UM wide receiver has seen the systems GVC has in place to flag unusual betting behaviors to catch irregularities.
“They don’t want problem gamblers,” Toomer said. “That’s not good for their business. They want people who can come back, keep playing, and enjoying it. They don’t want it to affect their livelihoods, they don’t want that bad reputation. That’s how companies lose. It’s a short-term gain but long-term, they’ll lose out because their customers can’t maintain.”
US sports betting has the chance to do it right
A former TV analyst, Toomer has seen legalized sports betting emerge in his current home of New Jersey.
His wife is from Denmark, and the family spends time most summers in Europe.
There, he sees what could happen here, including match-fixing scandals in soccer and tennis across the pond.
“Just being aware of the different angles that someone can come at you with,” Toomer said, referencing injury information from daily practices that could help NFL fantasy football players. “If you know where people are coming from, or that people are trying to manipulate you, you can very easily fend them off.”
GVC, headquartered in Europe, has a joint venture with MGM Resorts International called Roar Digital. Roar is set to launch a BetMGM sports betting app statewide.
Toomer knew of Michigan teammates who gambled
From his teachings at Michigan, Toomer was hyper-aware of gamblers looking for information. He stayed guarded when anyone asked pretty much anything about the team or game plans.
“I think that it was overkill for college,” Toomer recalled. “But it was appropriate because as you move on in sports, and as gambling kind of proliferates in society, these athletes are going to have to have as much information as they possibly can.”
Still, Toomer said he knew of teammates betting on games.
“I thought they were the craziest people,” Toomer said. “It was such a situation that was avoidable. I don’t want that to happen to anybody.
“I feel like, as an athlete… knowing how complicated team sports are, because everybody has their own agenda, it’s a tough thing to game.”
Rival Buckeyes had notorious cautionary tale
A couple of the most memorable wins of Toomer’s Michigan career ruined promising Ohio State seasons.
Unlike these days, the Wolverines were in control of the rivalry back then. Toomer’s Michigan teams were 2-1-1 against the Buckeyes, including two wins against OSU teams ranked in the top five.
Toomer also remembers coaches harping on the story of former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter, a promising career ruined.
A four-year starter and multi-year Heisman Trophy candidate, Schlichter was on his way to NFL stardom. Picked fourth in the 1982 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts, gambling derailed Schlichter’s career. He appeared in just 13 NFL games over three seasons.
The former Buckeye is currently serving jail time for stealing millions of dollars to maintain his gambling habit.
“Sports have done so much for me and so much for my family,” Toomer said. “I definitely want to make sure that nobody falls in this pothole of getting caught up in gambling.”
As for his teachings, Toomer said he’d like to see a problem gambling hotline established just for former players to seek confidential help.
“I want to make sure that I leave sports better than when I started with it,” Toomer said. “And if there’s anything I can do to do that, and keep sports fun, that’s exactly what I want to do.”