Bet on spread of college gambling

Boston College is just the beginning. Betting scandals are not yet as common as blue jeans on America's campuses, but the conditions have never been more conducive.

''It's easier to place a bet on a college campus today than to buy a pack of cigarettes or buy a beer,'' Arnie Wexler said the other day. ''We've made gambling so socially acceptable and legal, you can go to any grocery store and find lottery tickets. You'll see someone holding their 5-year-old kid and rubbing off $5 in lottery tickets. What kind of message does that send?''

The evolution of gambling from an illegal underground activity to a state-sponsored scam has been as disorienting and disturbing as nudity on the networks. Bombarded by fast-buck advertising and deluged by decriminalized numbers games, a generation has grown up free of the moral queasiness that their ancestors felt about games of chance. In a recent NCAA-funded study, 25.5 percent of Division I football and men's basketball players admitted to betting on sports.

This is a troubling trend, even among some of those who profit from it. Wexler is a consultant on compulsive gambling, and he has never been in greater demand. He was awaiting a call from Dan Rather's people when reached by telephone this week. Someone from Sports Illustrated was on the other line.

''Boston College is not the only school where the athletes are betting,'' Wexler said. ''I've personally spoken to kids who were athletes who have been doing this. Nobody told me they bet on their own games, but they told me they bet on sporting events. It's a close step for a compulsive gambler to go from betting on other games to place a bet on their own games.

''But the colleges have their head in the sand. The attitude is 'Not in my school.'''

'Step away from scandal'

One place where the dangers of gambling are adequately appreciated is at the University of Kentucky. Athletic Director C.M. Newton earned his varsity letter in 1951, the same year that three UK players were arrested for shaving points in a game at Madison Square Garden. He has remained vigilant about gambling ever since.

''History has a way of repeating itself,'' Newton said. ''And people have short memories about betting scandals in sports. With the lotteries and all the riverboat gambling, in the minds of a lot of people, it (gambling) is kind of like taking a drink of water. What I want people to understand is they need to know what's in that water. People don't realize the addictive side of it.''

Two months ago, Newton brought Wexler to Lexington for a gambling forum that was made mandatory for all UK student-athletes. The two men had earlier participated in a panel discussion at the Final Four.

''I said, 'We're a step away from a scandal in this country in betting on games,''' Wexler recalled. ''Someone asked C.M. Newton, 'Is he right?' He said, 'Absolutely right.'''

Their suspicions have been borne out by Boston College, but any simpleton could have seen the danger signs developing.

In Nevada, the only state where sports gambling remains above-board, the number of legal sports books has grown from 12 to more than 100 since 1969. In that same span, the total sports betting handle at these establishments has increased from $395,800 to $2.25 billion, USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan says.

Starting young

Americans are gambling more, and they are gambling earlier. Wexler says 96% of compulsive gamblers begin before their 14th birthday. Two years ago, 12% of the callers seeking help from the 1-800-GAMBLER hot line were not yet 21 years old.

Small wonder. Almost every newspaper in America - this one included - prints point spreads on a daily basis. Almost every convenience store doubles as an outlet for lottery tickets. Major-league baseball, which banished Pete Rose in a rare moment of morality, continues to allow scoreboard advertising from state lotteries and floating casinos.

In an environment that encourages vice, one should not expect virtue.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Nov. 10, 1996.