Gamblers are betting unprecedented amounts on college sports, so much that the total wagered on the NCAA men's basketball tournament this year in Nevada might for the first time exceed money bet on the Super Bowl.
But the excitement of mounting revenue in the state's sports books has not been met with equal enthusiasm by some on Capitol Hill, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), who, along with NCAA leaders, are pushing for legislation that would ban gambling on college sports in the United States.
The implications of the impending battle are significant. On one side, Nevada accepts an average of more than $1 million a game in wagers on the 64 NCAA men's tournament games. On the other, fears of a repeated point-shaving scandal have raised concerns about the vulnerability of college sports to unsavory elements.
Legal betting on college sporting events takes place only in the state of Nevada, but prohibition in other states has done virtually nothing to discourage wagering on the NCAA tournament. From law offices to muffler shops, from hospitals to newsrooms, the familiar bracket sheets can be found taped on walls. Everyone from basketball computer geeks to those who wouldn't know a Georgetown Hoya from Oscar De La Hoya plops down $5 and fills out the brackets.
An estimated $380 billion a year is bet illegally on sports in this country, according to the federally funded National Gambling Impact Study. In Nevada, another $1.936 billion was wagered legally through sports books last year.
Experts estimate about 35% of the dollars are bet on college sports. They predict the final tally after Monday night's championship game will place betting on the NCAA men's tournament at more than the $70 million wagered on Super Bowl XXXVII.
All this money changing hands on the outcome of college games makes NCAA officials nervous, especially in light of periodic point-shaving scandals that have rocked college basketball.
For the last three years, they have sought legislative relief in both houses of Congress. McCain's Amateur Sports Integrity Act would make wagering on collegiate, high school and Olympic sports illegal anywhere in this country. In effect, it is pointed squarely at Nevada.
The bill, which stalled on the floor of Congress when introduced three years ago, will be reintroduced later this year in the Commerce Committee chaired by McCain. Meanwhile, Osborne, the former Nebraska football coach, introduced bipartisan House legislation last week with former Harvard quarterback Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.) that would end gambling on amateur athletics.
The Student Athlete Protection Act "works to close the Nevada loophole that takes billions of dollars in gambling profits from families, athletes and people across the nation," Osborne said in a statement.
NCAA President Myles Brand said he is "fully supportive of the legislation."
Such attempts to curtail gambling elicit a laugh from Billy Baxter, a professional gambler who lives in Las Vegas and bets up to $1 million a weekend on football -- half a million Saturday on the colleges and half a million Sunday on the pros.
"It sounds good," Baxter said. " 'Oh, we are going to stop kids from gambling.' Anybody who wants to bet is going to bet and you are not going to stop them. Not in this lifetime, or the next."
It's no laughing matter to Bill Saum, the NCAA's first director of agent/gambling/amateurism activities.
"We're never going to end gambling," Saum said in an interview in his office at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. "If we said that, people would say we have our head in the sand. But I do believe we can move things on this issue.
"We're realists here. There are thousands of dollars and plenty of bad guys out there who want to influence our athletes. All we can do every morning is wake up and fight the good fight. It's about integrity."
The fight for a legislative ban on collegiate gambling began at a news conference held in the glare of another Final Four three years ago in Indianapolis.
The gambling legislation was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Congressman Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who was on hand for the news conference, as was Senate sponsor Sam Brownback (R-Kan). Also there were then-NCAA president Cedric Dempsey, Purdue Coach Gene Keady, then the incoming president of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches, and Kansas Coach Roy Williams.
They came armed with evidence for their cause -- men's basketball point-shaving incidents with Arizona State in 1994 and Northwestern in '95.
Subsequent surveys have given them more ammunition.
According to a 1999 survey by the University of Michigan, 72% of 758 basketball and football players questioned admitted gambling in college, with 5.2% of the male athletes saying they either fixed or bet on a game they played in, or provided inside information for gambling purposes.