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1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

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  NCAA Fears Gambling Fallout

By Josh Barr, Tim Graham and Mark Asher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 30, 1998; Page A1

Thirteen hundred miles from the site of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball Final Four, about 1,000 gamblers crowded into the Las Vegas Hilton Sports Superbook to watch Saturday's action on seven theater-sized televisions.

The standing-room-only crowd watched the games intently and reacted loudly to every basket, turnover and foul. The passion wasn't fueled strictly by team loyalty. Money was at stake.

The $80 million wagered on this year's NCAA tournament has exceeded the amount bet on this year's Super Bowl — $77.3 million—in Nevada's legal sports books. The FBI estimates that close to $2.5 billion is wagered illegally every year on the 63-game tournament, from bets placed with small-time bookies to office pools. Oddsmaker Michael "Roxy" Roxborough estimates that $10 million will be bet legally and nearly $1 billion illegally on tonight's championship game between the University of Utah and the University of Kentucky.

The increasing lure of college basketball betting has become a major source of worry for NCAA officials, law enforcement authorities and even operators of legal sports books such as the Hilton's. The proliferation and growing acceptance of gambling, they say, poses a danger to college athletes, who could become burdened with gambling debts and drawn into point-shaving conspiracies in which they take bribes to ensure a game's final scoring margin. These officials assert that widespread wagering on college campuses threatens the integrity of the college game, already stained by two recent point-shaving scandals.

In San Antonio on Thursday — the day two former Northwestern University men's basketball players were indicted for shaving points in three games during the 1994-95 season—NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey called illegal sports wagering "the most critical issue we have in athletics today."

"I have heard that $4.5 billion will be wagered on this tournament," said Dempsey, whose organization had been rocked just four months earlier when two former Arizona State men's basketball players pleaded guilty to conspiring to fix four games during the 1993-94 season. "We know of some studies we have seen [that] there is more money spent on college campuses today on gambling than there is [on] alcohol. . . . If we find that we have a lot of point shaving going on, our public will lose confidence in what's happening, and then certainly what we see here in terms of interest will wane."

Interest in men's college basketball translates into a huge business. The television rights for this year's men's basketball tournament will generate $209 million for the NCAA and its member schools. The NCAA and its schools will gain another $17.1 million from ticket sales. Then there is revenue from concessions and souvenirs.

Final Four weekend historically is one of the busiest of the year in Las Vegas. According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the 1996 Final Four weekend generated 98.8 percent hotel occupancy, tying the second highest of the year in a city that has more hotel rooms—105,347—than any other in the world. By comparison, 91.2 percent of rooms were filled for the 1996 Super Bowl weekend.

According to the NCAA, a recent University of Cincinnati survey of 648 Division I men's basketball and football players indicated that 25 percent of respondents had wagered on collegiate sporting events. Four percent had bet on a game in which they played. In 1995, four Maryland football players and one men's basketball player were found to have bet on collegiate sporting events.

To combat the spread of wagering on campuses—particularly by college athletes—the NCAA has begun a high-profile educational campaign that includes the distribution of stickers, posters and videotapes about the dangers of gambling. It has hired a full-time employee to help control and eliminate gambling by athletes.

The NCAA, which recently installed a computer at its headquarters to monitor Nevada betting lines, also has adopted tougher regulations regarding sports wagering and stiffer penalties for those found in violation. Last year, the NCAA enacted rules prohibiting wagering, legal or illegal, by athletic department staff members and athletes on all collegiate and professional athletic events in which the NCAA holds a championship. (Wagering is allowed on horse racing, auto racing and boxing because there is no NCAA championship in those sports.)

Such stringent regulations are viewed as the only way to prevent point-shaving incidents from becoming commonplace.

"We do not believe that point shaving happens on a regular occurence," said Bill Saum, the NCAA's agent and gambling representative. "But it would be naive to sit here and tell you that there is no point shaving going on."

College basketball's first point-shaving scandal occurred in the 1940s, when 32 players were involved in fixing 86 games at Madison Square Garden. Point-shaving schemes have been uncovered even at prestigious programs such as North Carolina and Kentucky, where then-coach Adolph Rupp once said gamblers couldn't touch his players with a 10-foot pole.

Last December, two former Arizona State players pleaded guilty to conspiring to fix four games during the 1993-94 season. Earlier this year, a student at Cal State Fullerton was arrested for trying to bribe one of his school's basketball players to shave points. And last week, two former Northwestern players were indicted on charges of conspiring to fix three games in early 1995. A third former player was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator.

Despite the two recent point-shaving scandals, gaming industry officials said, game fixing in college sports remains the exception, not the norm.

"We book thousands and thousands of these events each year, and there have been just three questionable situations in the past 30 years prior to this week," said Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports operations for the Hilton's six Nevada books. "There was the Boston College scandal in the '70s, Tulane in the '80s and Arizona State in the '90s."

Some point-shaving schemes, including the alleged conspiracy at Northwestern, originate when gamblers incur debts they are unable to pay. Illegal bookmakers—unlike the licensed bookmakers in Nevada—often extend credit to their clients.

"Then it compounds, and they begin betting double or nothing," said Randall Sealby, the FBI agent in charge of the Northwestern investigation. "It starts off as fun and excitement, and then it becomes a financial thing. They're only doing it to get out of debt."

The bookie then offers point shaving as a way to balance the ledger. Basketball players are easy targets because, with only five on the floor at a time, they can influence a game's outcome as in few other sports.

The former Arizona State players, Stevin "Hedake" Smith and Isaac Burton Jr., pleaded guilty to conspiring to fix four games in exchange for their debts being forgiven and an additional payment of $20,000. The Northwestern indictment alleges that a football player running a sports betting operation on campus threatened physical harm to guard Kenneth Dion Lee if he didn't pay his gambling debts. Lee turned to point shaving as a way to erase his debts, according to the indictment.

The NCAA used its showcase event, the Final Four, as an opportunity to caution college athletes about the risks of gambling. Minutes after each of the four national semifinal teams completed its final practice session for Saturday's games, players, coaches and managers were whisked into a conference room for a presentation given by an FBI agent and the NCAA's Saum.

Such educational efforts are applauded by many in the gaming industry, whose livelihood depends on sporting events being contested without the taint of fixing.

"We're doing everything we can to protect the integrity of the game," said Manteris. "Protecting the integrity is good for us, too. If ever there's a problem with fixing, casinos or books are the ones subject to financial losses."

In many instances, players are exposed to gamblers who live in the same dormitory or attend the same classes that they do. Saum said he believes there are student bookies on every college campus, and athletes say they sometimes feel subtle pressure from student gamblers.

"I've had people come up to me and say, 'Play good tonight. I hope you guys win because I've got money on it,'" said Kentucky freshman guard Saul Smith, son of Wildcats Coach Tubby Smith.

More than two dozen players interviewed for this story said they had never bet on a sporting event. However, many knew someone who had placed a bet and almost all said it would be relatively easy for them to place bets themselves.

"It's definitely available," Stanford forward Ryan Mendez said.

In the Maryland case, three athletes received one-game suspensions for betting $25 or less on football parlay cards in which they attempted to predict the outcome of games.

"They had not thought of that as gambling per se because there was no bookie involved," said Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow. "Most of them understood when you deal with a bookie, that's gambling and it's a bad offense. They understand that betting on their own event is wrong. But they had a hard time seeing that placing small bets in sports events in which they were not competing was wrong, especially on the NFL and college games other than Maryland. They said they saw their parents doing the same thing."

They also saw the Maryland athletic department employees conducting an office pool on the NCAA tournament, like nearly every office in the country. Yow has since banned the office pool.

Sports fans who paid $1 or more to participate in their office pools will be watching the outcome of Monday night's championship game, and the Hilton's sports book will be packed once again.

"One thing about the Super Bowl is there are only two teams," Roxborough said. "But when you take 64 college teams, you know how many ways there are to be connected with 64 teams? Maybe you attended one [of the schools]. Maybe your wife did. You could have children who go to one. You certainly live near one of them. Your conference certainly has to have one in the field.

"Everybody has some type of connection with these teams, and they like to bet on them."

Barr reported from San Antonio, Graham from Las Vegas, Asher from Washington. Special correspondent Laura Gardner and staff writer Ken Denlinger, both in San Antonio, contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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