The current Tulane University basketball scandal is the fourth point-shaving disgrace to visit our halls of higher learning in 34 years. And while newspapers have reported the arrests and indictments, some readers may wonder whether the papers have not indirectly contributed to the unhappy events.
Newspapers, including The Post, publish syndicated columns such as "The Latest Line." They appear in tiny agate type, but sports fans do manage to find the point-spread listings. In The Post they appear for college and professional football games, college and professional basketball games, professional hockey games, and even sometimes major league baseball, according to George Solomon, assistant managing editor/sports.
The true fans are interested in which teams have the best chance of winning, but the gamblers are interested in not only who wins, but by how much. In the current Tulane probe, three players are accused of shaving points in two games -- either winning by a lower margin or losing by a greater margin than the established "line." Newspapers had listed Tulane as a 101/2-point favorite over Southern Mississippi, and Tulane won by only a point, which gave the bookies a triumph. Memphis was a four-point favorite in the columns and beat Tulane by 11 points, ensuring another money- maker for the dealers.
Since sports gambling, except for horse racing, is illegal in all states except Nevada, I wonder why newspapers publish information that contributes to illegal betting. I wonder if such listings do not swell the betting pot so that there is more incentive to bookmakers or gamblers to find ways to convert their bets to sure things. Should we not ask newspapers, rarely shy about commenting on the ethics of others, whether they are behaving ethically?
Over the years, coaches, columnists and sports editors have raised the same questions. Three years ago, Philip Straw of College Park did his master's thesis on the subject and found, in a poll of 17 sports editors of major papers, only four of them consider the practice unethical and only three opposed publication of such information.
Annual polls by the Associated Press sports editors, involving about 150 newspapers, indicate that currently about 71 percent carry college football "lines," 79 percent pro football, 46 percent other college sports and 51 percent other pro sports. One of the significant holdouts is The New York Times. After the Boston College basketball scandal, the Boston Globe trimmed college basketball from its listings.
Editors such as The Post's Solomon believe point-spread publication is desired by all readers, while still serving those who are betting. Some editors argue that publication encourages readers to make bets and gives credence to the idea that it's all right to bet even though it is illegal.
Solomon, while not a bettor himself, says most local betting is in small amounts, mostly in work places, and "most is almost social, not serious or professional. Social wagering is socially acceptable. I have never heard from a law enforcement agency, although I have been on panels with Justice Department people." As for the point-shavers, "I don't think the people involved knew what this newspaper or any other was publishing. What they did was strictly a personal action," Solomon declared.
In my opinion, gambling is not a victimless crime, because for some it is a sickness, and newspapers should not be cooperating in the illicit conduct. As a sports editor put it, "Should we publish the phone numbers of prostitutes?"
Some co-workers and editors of Courtland Milloy, a Post Metro columnist, criticized my column of last Wednesday. Any suggestion there that the reference to the infamous Janet Cooke episode had anything to do with Milloy was unintended. In fact, Milloy was one of those most actively raising doubts about her "story." I meant to liken the Cooke episode to the nonexistent baby's body stuffed with cocaine.
Post editors assured themselves that Milloy's column on "The Hit Doctor" was soundly based. This was confirmed by her arrest as my column noted. He is a fine writer and a sensitive reporter. I apologize to him.