SAN ANTONIO — Calling gambling a grave threat to college athletics and "as big an addiction on our campuses as alcohol," NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey reacted to federal indictments of two former Northwestern basketball players on point-shaving charges Thursday by assailing society's acceptance of gambling and vowing to step up the NCAA's vigilance.
"I think illegal sports wagering is probably the most critical issue we face in intercollegiate sports," Dempsey said. "It cuts to the very fiber of collegiate athletics. If people lose confidence, interest will wane. We look at this very seriously."
Warned by the FBI in recent years of the potential for players to be approached about fixing games, the NCAA already had taken unprecedented measures this season, requiring all 64 tournament teams to watch an anti-gambling video before playing, and scheduling talks by an FBI agent to the Final Four teams here.
"You have to make them aware, because they can inadvertently get involved," Dempsey said. "I don't think you can insulate them. It may be their roommate in college who's a bookie.
"We know every institution in this country has student bookies, tied directly or indirectly to organized crime."
Gambling was already a topic of discussion among coaches gathered for the Final Four, even before word of the indictments spread.
"It's a bomb ready to explode," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday morning at a news conference held by the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches. "It could happen to anybody, and we wouldn't know until it happened. And you'd get killed, if that happened. People would want to know why you didn't know."
Less than three hours later in Chicago, a federal prosecutor announced that charges had been filed against two former Northwestern players, Kenneth Dion Lee and Dewey Williams, for allegedly shaving points in three games during the 1994-95 season. Two other men, Kevin Pendergast and Brian Irving, were charged with conspiring to fix the outcome of the games.
The coach at Northwestern, Kevin O'Neill, is in his first year at the school and had no ties to the former players. He learned of the investigation recently.
"I think it proves one thing, and I hope young people take a lesson from it: It can happen to anybody, anywhere," O'Neill said. "This isn't unique to Northwestern. It can happen anywhere. It just happened here."
The players involved played for former coach Ricky Byrdsong, now in business in Chicago.
"Honestly, I'm not trying to be cavalier, I think it is a tragic situation for our university and college basketball and the people involved," O'Neill said. "But in my mind, that was four years ago. There's nothing we can do.
"If I was the coach four years ago, I'd be feeling bad."
The Northwestern scandal is the latest in a string involving college basketball, most recently at Arizona State and on a smaller scale at Cal State Fullerton, where a student was arrested this season after approaching a player about the possibility of shaving points. Fullerton responded precisely as the NCAA is advising, by reporting the incident to police. The student has pleaded not guilty.
"It's very concerning to all of us," said Purdue Coach Gene Keady, who competes against Northwestern in the Big Ten Conference but said he was unaware of the charges until Thursday and had no other suspicions. "The NCAA selection committee was concerned about this about five years ago. This is a big problem.
"We have [anti-gambling] posters up in our training room and in the lockers. It's a reminder that if you get a phone call about how somebody's ankle is coming along, not to answer unless you know them personally."
The NCAA recently provided data from a University of Cincinnati survey of 648 Division I men's basketball and football players. More than 25% admitted they had gambled on other college sporting events and 24 athletes, or 3.7%, admitted they had gambled on a game in which they played. Three athletes said they had taken money from a gambler for not playing well in a game.
"Gambling on campus is at a high level," Krzyzewski said. "Hey, you can go get a pizza on campus, and here's what can happen. Somebody can start asking you for information. You've got to be careful."
George Washington Coach Mike Jarvis said the concerns don't end on campus.
"We need to look at everybody involved, not just players but officials, the timer, the scorer, anyone who can potentially affect the game," he said.
Dempsey and many of the coaches blamed society's increasing acceptance of gambling.
Kansas Coach Roy Williams said, "I think it's a fact of life, you pick up every newspaper and there are the odds or the line or the tout sheet. Some very reputable former athletes and coaches are promoting these things. . . . It's something we have to be able to talk about openly with our players."
Dempsey was even more outspoken.