It’s all in the numbers |

It’s all in the numbers

Gary Kank

Just as low-seeded Gonzaga prepares to go to war in its game against powerhouse Michigan State, Nevada lawmakers are battling with the NCAA on the issue of college gambling. The favorites are Michigan State and the NCAA.

The “madness” of March, which normally takes place on the hard courts, has found its way to another competitive forum, Congress.

Extensive lobbying by the NCAA has led Reps. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Tim Roemer, D-Ind., to reintroduce a bill this week that would ban betting on college sports in Nevada.

This has Lake Tahoe sports books operators and their patrons feeling a different kind of tension this time of year.

“If this law passes it would be a big disappointment,” said Steve Schorr, manager of sports book operations at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. “This is our busiest event of the year next to the Super Bowl and it is getting bigger and bigger every year.”

Not only will it be a hit to the sports books, which reported 25 percent of the industry’s revenue comes from college wagering, it will also affect the hundreds of people who come to Nevada each year to place wagers on the tournament.

“My friends and I come here every March to spend the weekend watching and betting on the games,” said James Cooper of San Francisco as he followed the action on television sets at the Harveys Resort & Casino sports book. “It’s turned into a tradition for us.”

However, with the legislation introduced this week by Graham and Roemer, that tradition could soon be over for Cooper and his friends.

The bill, which is headed to the House Judiciary Committee, was reintroduced in response to an outcry from the NCAA stating that legal betting on collegiate events is a threat to the veracity of its contests and can lead to athletes’ altering the outcome of games through point shaving.

William Saum, director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities for the NCAA stated, “By clearly making gambling on college sports illegal everywhere, all the time, we will strengthen our efforts to maintain the integrity of college sports.”

While this seems a logical solution to the problem, Nevada lawmakers disagree and have launched an active lobbying attack on the bill, packaged with legislation of their own.

On Monday, a Nevada Senate panel unanimously passed Assembly Joint Resolution 2, which urges Congress not to outlaw bets on NCAA events. The counter measure coincides with the NCAA Protection Act of 2001, which was introduced to Congress earlier in the month by Nevada’s U.S. Sens. Harry Reid, a Democrat, and John Ensign, a Republican. The Protection Act, which is heading to the Senate Judiciary Committee, would increase the penalties on illegal betting and also mandate studies into betting among minors and illegal betting on college campuses.

Senate Judiciary Chairman, Orin Hatch, R-Utah, is a proponent of the bill and recently signed on as a co-sponsor. That has Nevada lawmakers feeling better about their chances of beating the ban.

“I think we have gained a little bit of ground,” Reid said. “We still have a real uphill battle though. Last year we had about a 5 percent chance of prevailing, now we probably have 35 percent.”

Ensign echoed Reid’s comments saying, “Sen. Hatch is a well-respected leader here on the (Capitol) Hill and his support is a real boost for this bill.”

While the NCAA feels eliminating wagering on its events is a sure fire way to curb campus bookie operations and point shaving scams, Nevada legislators and gaming officials are skeptical this ban will help the issue and some believe it will make things worse, citing Nevada’s strict regulation of legal sports gambling which prevents point shaving from happening.

In 1994 a point-shaving scandal involving illegal bookmakers and members of the Arizona State University basketball team was red flagged in Nevada after gaming officials noticed a pattern of unusual wagering on the team. The Las Vegas sports books immediately informed the NCAA and Pac-10 Conference, who in turn performed an investigation that led to the criminal indictment of eight people.

State Gaming Commission Chairman Brian Sandoval offered that the NCAA’s efforts would “eliminate Nevada’s watchdog role in this whole process.”

Other officials feel the NCAA is making Nevada a scapegoat for its own inadequacies of policing campus betting rings and athlete wagering.

Bill Bible, Nevada Resort Association president, said, “the NCAA has failed to address how this ban is going to do anything to enforce the existing prohibition on illegal wagering on college campuses.”

Tony Nelson, who also made the trip up from the Bay area, offered his take on the issue.

“If there is a ban placed on betting on college sports here in Nevada, there are definitely other options out there.”

The other options point to a booming sports wagering industry based on the Internet. Chairman Sandoval added there are reports that “offshore bookmakers are licking their chops. They’re calling this the bookies’ full employment act. They can’t wait for the federal Congress to pass this legislation because all it will do is increase their handle.”

So while politicians and lobbyists jockey for position, college basketball enthusiasts can go ahead and “drive the lane” at local sports books, but the shot clock is ticking, and next season it may have expired.

– The Associated Press contributed to this story

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