BOSTON — GAMBLING struts visibly and invisibly at the edges of every National Football League championship, and Sunday's Super Bowl in Miami will be no exception.
Oddsmakers have installed the San Francisco 49ers as the biggest Super Bowl favorites in history (about 19 points better than the San Diego Chargers), and there is little to dissuade serious or casual gamblers from placing a bet, legally or illegally.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't keep figures on how much is bet on the Super Bowl. ``Organized crime does not issue financial statements,'' an FBI spokesman volunteers, but he says a ``considerable amount'' is wagered. In 1981 the NFL estimated that $50 billion was bet on pro football games.
Sports gambling in the US is considered a billion-dollar growth industry, and experts say the Super Bowl is the single most bet-upon event in America. Arnie Wexler, who runs a counseling service for compulsive gamblers, says, ``Bookmakers have told me that if they had 100 gamblers during a year, they had 500 or 600 for the Super Bowl.''
Bets placed with bookies represent a largely clandestine side of sports betting. Much seemingly harmless wagering goes public at Super Bowl time, however. Even politicians join in with some sort of regional delicacy or product at stake in a show of civic pride and confidence. This leads to some rather comical indiscretions, in Nelson Rose's view.
Dr. Rose, a professor at the Whittier Law School in Los Angeles and a national expert on gaming law, says, ``When there are teams from two different states, you'll see governors making bets and violating both state and federal laws, but of course nobody cares.''
Many people don't realize that despite relaxed gambling laws, wagering on the Super Bowl is, with few exceptions (in Nevada, for example), illegal. Yet society winks. As long as the neighbor's Super Bowl party is quiet and there are no signs of organized criminal activity, Rose says, red flags aren't raised.
``Everyone thinks this is as American as apple pie, betting on football,'' says Jean Falzon, executive director of the National Council of Problem Gambling Inc. ``Look at offices this time of year. Everyone's got a Super Bowl [betting] pool. It seems perfectly harmless and perfectly normal. Unfortunately, there are those few who have developed significant problems.''
A recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that about 5 percent of the people who bet are compulsive gamblers or seriously at risk of becoming compulsive gamblers. Some of these individuals go over the edge at Super Bowl time and seek help.
In 1986, one gambler called a hot line and told Mr. Wexler, a recovered gambler who lectures nationwide, that he had bet $22,000 on the flip of the coin in the Super Bowl. ``Another guy called to say he had embezzled $20,000 from a bank he worked for in order to bet on the game,'' Wexler recalls. ``He was living with his parents and was afraid to go home. He wanted to kill himself.''
These personal catastrophes have wider social consequences, says Tom Cummings, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. ``Personal bankruptcies have increased dramatically in Massachusetts in the last three years,'' he says, ``and the major factor is gambling debt.''
Football, experts say, is an attractive betting sport partly because games are a week apart, allowing plenty of time for making picks.
The Super Bowl comes two weeks after the conference championship games and can be a siren song to those with gambling addictions, including those trying to stop.
``Some people in recovery hear all the hype and feel the juices flowing,'' Wexler says. ``They may relapse at this point.'' To combat this, recovery groups like Gamblers Anonymous sometimes counter-schedule, arranging Super Sunday dinner parties at which no one watches the game.
``Bettors will try to recoup a whole season of losses or get ahead on the Super Bowl,'' says Sue Cox, executive director of the Texas Council of Problem and Compulsive Gambling Inc. Gambler hot lines sometimes light up after the game, but Ms. Cox says calls dribble into her organization's hot line for months.
``Hope springs eternal in the hearts of compulsive gamblers,'' she says, speaking of Texans who try to make up their football losses in other sports.
``They'll turn to whatever's in season, which is dangerous because Texans don't know anything about hockey and they're not avid basketball fans.''
``A gambler,'' says Mr. Cummings, ``looks for the solution to his problem in the problem, which is to make one more bet.''