Sunday, April 03, 2005

Women hit big time: Vegas takes action

NCAA, FBI officials give Final 4 teams primer on gambling.

The women's Final Four is drawing much more than local and television interest. It's drawing action in Las Vegas.

Yes, the women's basketball NCAA Tournament is on the big board in casino sports books.

It's a coming of age of sorts. The wagering interest has grown along with the TV coverage. Only the championship game was televised in 1982, the first year the NCAA sponsored the women's tournament. For the past three years, all 63 games have been televised.

"The key to sports betting is if people can see it on TV," said Robert Walker, who sets the lines and the odds on the women's tournament for the MGM Mirage casinos in Las Vegas. "TV drives everything."

In response, the NCAA is making sure the women get the same education about what gambling can mean to them, and to their game, that the men hear at their Final Four, football bowl games and Frozen Four hockey playoffs.

Deana Garner, the NCAA's associate director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities, will meet with the four teams separately today, explaining the NCAA rules and consequences regarding gambling. An FBI agent will speak about how some student-athletes have landed in prison for helping to "fix" games.

"The first year I did this presentation, in 2000, the young ladies were amazed, and they wondered why the FBI needs to be in their locker room," Garner said.

In addition, Michael Franzese, a former member of an organized crime family who spent time in prison on gambling-related charges, will speak to the Women's Basketball Coaches Association on Tuesday at its convention here.

Simply put, NCAA Bylaw 10.3 says any kind of wagering on sports, or sharing information that is used for wagering, can cost an athlete his or her scholarship. The athlete could be suspended from competition or permanently banned from college sports.

As is the practice for athletes competing in bowl games, the men's basketball tournament, the Frozen Four and the College World Series, all of the athletes competing in the women's basketball NCAA Tournament (and all of the officials) were required to sign a notarized affidavit swearing to the truth of their answers on a series of questions about gambling.

Since 2000, NCAA student-athletes have noticed a stepped-up anti-gambling campaign. There are posters for the locker rooms, brochures to accompany the videos and speakers, even wristbands in NCAA blue warning: DON'T BET ON IT.

So far, there has not been evidence of a major problem with betting on the women's tournament, either from inside or out.

Last May, the NCAA released a gambling survey of 21,000 student-athletes, men and women. The results showed that 17.2 percent of Division I men reported wagering on collegiate sports, as did 5.9 percent of Division I women. The numbers are higher among basketball players: 21.2 percent of men, 8.2 percent of women.

No women's players or teams have received major penalties for betting on sports. Not so with the men, for whom serious trouble dates to the point-shaving scandal at City College of New York in the 1950s.

There were incidents involving Boston College basketball in the 1970s and Tulane basketball in the 1980s, and, in the mid-1990s, a scandal that involved Northwestern basketball players shaving points in a deal set up by former Notre Dame kicker Kevin Pendergast.

Northwestern guard Dion Lee and Pendergast eventually pleaded guilty to sports bribery.

Bill Saum, director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities for the NCAA since 1996, uses that case as an example of why the NCAA takes such a strong stand, even on pools so popular at this time of year.

In last May's poll, 15.4 percent of the men said they had gambled on a category of wagering that included "football cards and pools," as did 3.8 percent of women.

"We have to take a zero tolerance position," Saum said. "We can't tell our student-athletes that gambling is sort of OK at a dollar, but it's not at $2. That's why we take the position that pools are gambling."

While gambling on women's basketball has increased in the 12 years the sport has been on the boards in Las Vegas, it's nowhere near as popular as the men's event. The men's NCAA Tournament rivals the Super Bowl in wagering interest, with some $80 million spent in Nevada in March. An estimated $2 million is wagered on the women's tournament in that same period.

Walker said most casinos take action starting with the Sweet Sixteen in the women's event. He said he takes a chance being the "lone wolf" setting lines on the entire bracket.

But he also stresses that money is for legal betting, and that illegal gambling far outpaces it. On that point he and Saum agree.

Saum says he is concerned that student-athletes who begin betting with pools -- as Pendergast told Saum he did -- could end up on the wrong side of the law.

Saum lists "the well-being of our student-athletes" first and the integrity of the college game second when he explains why the NCAA is so concerned with betting. "We want the athletes to understand all of these things so they don't end up associating with the wrong people."

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