|Monday, March 12
Updated: March 14, 4:25 PM ET
Congress could trump Vegas on college book
By Darren Rovell
It's late March 2002 and Bally's sports book director John Avello sits at his desk recalling what business was like a year earlier.
He remembers how people streamed through the doors at 6 a.m. and didn't leave until 9 p.m. The screaming, the chest bumping and the lines that went 10 gamblers deep.
Avello is clearly in denial now. He's still shocked from the absence of the 64 color-coded books that once covered his desk and floor. And he's equally disturbed every time he steps out of his office and looks at the board -- only to see a smattering of NHL and NBA games listed.
If Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) have their way, say goodbye to the good old days of March Madness, the legal betting on the NCAA Tournament and, for that matter, wagering on all college sports. Separate bills, both of which aim to prohibit gambling on amateur sports, will be reintroduced to the Senate and House this year. Each piece of legislation was designed to amend the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which restricts 46 states from gambling on amateur sports and essentially leaves Nevada as the only state that can legally take bets on those games. Delaware, Montana and Oregon are the other states exempt from the act.
The bills, heavily favored when introduced a year ago, never made it to the floor for an initial vote. A year later and the gambling industry is ready for a rebuttal. So ready that a counter bill, which seeks to reduce the illegal gambling that makes up 99 percent of all sports betting, was introduced by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) in the House and jointly by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the Senate on Feb. 14.
The prospect of losing a $700 million cash cow -- approximately $70 million on March Madness alone -- has put Las Vegas casino lobbyists on the offensive.
Proponents of the original bills, known as the Student-Athlete Protection Act and the Amateur Sports Integrity Act, contend that eliminating the only legal share of gambling on college sports serves two purposes. First, it sends a message to the athletes and protects the integrity of the sport.
"Sports wagering cuts at the very fabric of intercollegiate athletics," said Bill Saum, the director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities for the NCAA. "It's not good for the welfare and the safety of our athletes, and it has no place in our game."
Over the past 10 years, gambling scandals were uncovered at Arizona State, Boston College, Maine and Northwestern. On March 5, McNeese State submitted a 57-page report to the NCAA detailing how two of its football coaches gambled on college games. A University of Michigan study released in January 1999 indicated that 72 percent of Division I student-athletes and 80 percent of the male student-athletes have gambled in some way since entering college.
Although the regulated Nevada sports books helped confirm point-shaving scandals by pointing to records of an unusual amount of action on the Arizona State and Northwestern games, Saum said: "They have cooperated, but to the best of our knowledge they have never prevented or stopped a point-shaving scandal from occurring."
Saum, who spoke March 2 before a joint hearing of the Nevada assembly and the state senate judiciary committees, said he is willing to give up on using the books as a tool for tracking potential point-shaving.
Secondly, Saum and supporters say that prohibiting gambling nationwide sends a message to those gambling illegally on college campuses. Otherwise, the theory goes, students might not know what they are doing is against the law.
Opponents point out that students not only know it's illegal, but they also know they can get better payouts on illegal bets than those placed in Las Vegas.
"The 1 percent isn't the problem, it's the other 99 percent," said Richard Perkins, speaker of the Nevada state legislature. The President Clinton-appointed National Gambling Impact Study Commission valued illegal sports gambling in the U.S. at between $80 billion and $380 billion, while Nevada's revenues are slightly more than $2 billion.
Graham, the representative who introduced the House bill, called his "an essential first step" to stopping gambling on college sports. McCain, co-author of last year's Senate bill, said prohibiting gambling wasn't the only part of the plan. "I don't think we have to choose between enforcing existing laws on illegal gambling and closing the loophole on legal gambling," McCain told ESPN.com. "We can do both."
"It's not like Congress is going to pass a law that bans legal gambling, and students across the country will say, 'Oh my God, I can't gamble anymore because it's illegal,' " argued John Shelk, vice president of the American Gaming Association, lobbyists for Nevada's casinos and sports books. "It's always been illegal from their perspective, so that's absolutely crazy."
Howard Shaffer, director of the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School, said he believes a law with little teeth actually could do more harm than good. "If we pass legislation that we cannot enforce, it will undermine authority in general and young people don't need any more laws that nobody respects," Shaffer said. "If it's unenforceable, they will come to see other legislation as unenforceable and then we'll have problems where we don't necessarily have them today."
While the NCAA, college coaches and university presidents support the legislation, the focus has been on the athletes and less so on the administrators. This year, the NCAA has distributed "Don't Bet On It" posters and video tapes to athletic departments and has developed a speaking circuit of sorts with convicted point-shavers Kenneth Dion Lee and Kevin Pendergast, who were both convicted in the Northwestern point-shaving scandal. Officials also will talk to each of the men's and women's teams in the Final Four this year.
To be fair, the NCAA doesn't give itself a chance with a minuscule budget of $229,000 to combat gambling and sports agents. That's less than 1 percent of the NCAA's $325.56 million operating budget this year, and $238,000 less than the organization spends on award ceremonies.
Still Avello, Bally's sports book-maker, said he and his Las Vegas counterparts are wary of the future of their business.
"Guys in the sports books are a close-knit group, and there is a feeling among us that this could be the end of us," Avello said. "If it is, it's going to be devastating not only to the books, but to the casino industry in general."
Nevada's advocates also think they have one feather in their cap: The 10th amendment, which delegates powers not granted to the federal government to the states. If the bill becomes a law, Bob Faiss, chairman of the gaming law department at Lionel, Sawyer and Collins in Nevada, said he believes "the state of Nevada will have grounds to challenge it" since gambling within a state's borders is not a power delegated to the government.
While Rep. Graham found it strange that there has been "no question or controversy about constitutionality" since 1992 and that Congress is "simply revisiting and correcting a previous decision," Faiss pointed out that Nevada accepted the terms of the bill nine years ago with the understanding that the state was exempt from the law.
Said Saum: "I'm glad that they are already thinking about the Supreme Court, because that means that they are already thinking that they might lose this battle."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.