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Seeing Long Odds With This Issue

As wagering becomes even more socially acceptable, Saum and the NCAA face an uphill battle in the fight to clean up gambling in college sports.

August 17, 2003|From Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Bill Saum, the NCAA's director of gambling activities, knows he can't catch everyone.

That doesn't mean he won't try to beat the odds in preventing betting on college sports.

"We can never stop it because it's such a societal problem, but we can limit it by educating coaches and administrators about the pitfalls," Saum said. "We can also become a little more cutting edge in educating people."

Two high-profile cases this year have added to the NCAA's worries.

Former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson pleaded no contest last month to gambling and theft charges after being accused of betting on Seminole football games.

Washington fired football coach Rick Neuheisel after he participated in a high-stakes NCAA basketball tournament pool. He also lied about the pool.

Saum said that state lotteries, Internet wagering and the growing number of casinos has made gambling more socially acceptable.

He sees that attitude trickling down to college students and athletes.

Some studies, Saum said, reveal that 25% of football and basketball players wager on games -- including 4% on the game in which their team is involved. Many use student bookies.

"We know already that we have a problem and probably a significant one," Saum said.

To confront the issue, Saum's game plan is to educate and reiterate the NCAA's policy, which prohibits all forms of gambling: no betting on your own games, no betting on other games, no pools, no exceptions.

The NCAA also has produced a booklet titled "Don't Bet on It," and has routinely sent posters, public service announcements and videos to schools to reinforce the message.

It has held seminars and encouraged schools to use the NCAA's gambling position in media guides and programs. In January, the NCAA will speak directly to college football coaches at their annual convention.

Despite the effort, Saum believes the problem continues to grow.

Although Saum would not discuss the McPherson or Neuheisel cases specifically, he acknowledged there has been an increase in the amount of calls he's received since those cases broke.

The NCAA also hopes to delve into the underworld of sports betting this fall by surveying 30,000 college athletes about their gambling practices. Saum said the 45-question survey will be confidential. Instead of using the answers to catch infractions, the NCAA will use responses to build a stronger case against gambling.

And if a school wants to hold its own seminar, all it has to do is ask. The NCAA can recommend speakers, such as Michael Franzese, a former organized crime figure.

Franzese's credibility has sometimes been questioned, but the NBA, major league baseball and the NCAA all have paid him to produce videos or speak to athletes about a problem he saw firsthand.

"Who knows how much is going on? We only know what's come to light," Franzese said. "In my day, college athletes were definitely a mark for pro gamblers with organized crime. I don't think it's any better today."

The issue surrounding college athletes is money.

Unlike professional players, who risk losing millions of dollars in earnings because of bets, college athletes get only the basics -- scholarships that cover tuition, fees, room and board and books. The lure of quick money could tempt a college athlete, Franzese said.

In a world where gambling has become so accepted that Saum said he knows of high school math teachers who use NCAA tournament pools as part of their curriculum, it's an uphill battle.

The only sure thing is that the NCAA does not plan to back down.

"We'll never feel it's a losing battle, because No. 1, we're an education-based organization," Saum said. "No. 2, we're dealing with young people and good young people make lots of mistakes.

"We think we're going to limit the problem, and we think we are stopping kids from making poor decisions. We just need to get their attention."

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