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Trying to Bar the Door Against Sports Bettors

By Ross Atkin / April 4, 1995



WHAT if college basketball held a championship and no reporters came? As bizarre as that sounds, it was in the realm of possibility for this year's just-concluded Final Four men's tournament in Seattle.

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Last year the National Collegiate Athletic Association proposed denying Final Four credentials to any newspaper that published point spreads, which would rule out a majority of papers. Realizing it could face a protracted legal battle on First Amendment grounds, the NCAA withdrew the proposal, but the message was clear: Gambling and college sports don't mix, or at least weren't meant to.

The college basketball community has long been sensitive to the potential for gambling-related point-shaving and game-fixing scandals. The sport was rocked by one that involved City College of New York and Kentucky, among other schools, in the early 1950s. That reportedly explains why the Final Four has avoided New York ever since. In 1985, Tulane University's basketball program was brought down by similar wrongdoing. Neither of these celebrated cases occurred in the postseason, but the NCAA is well aware that its men's tournament in particular is a magnet for gambling activity.

Just last week, USA Today ran a story headlined, ''Billions bet on basketball tournament.'' The article reported that only the Super Bowl attracts heavier wagering than the estimated $2.5 billion bet on 63 NCAA tournament games. An increase in on-campus gambling (the focus of a three-part report in Sports Illustrated beginning with the current issue) and the spread of gambling generally are among reasons given for NCAA concern.

The NCAA has kept gambling tout sheets, which supply serious bettors with picks and tips, off the Final Four's door by denying their reporters access. This reporter remembers a Final Four press conference in 1976 in which Indiana University coach Bob Knight spied a tout at the back of the room. Furious, Knight said the conference would not continue until the intruder left.

Still, gambling's presence is felt indirectly at the tournament through publications that run the betting line and provide statistical comparisons helpful to gamblers.

Asked what the impact would be if USA Today were to stop printing anything that hints of gambling, Gene Policinski, USA Today's managing sports editor, said, ''That kind of decision couldn't possibly be made. When we write that team X is going to play team Y, the writer has to say in some fashion which team is favored. And if you say 'favored,' you ought to say by a touchdown or by a goal.... Every bit of information we have would in some way be useful to place a bet.''

Policinski says USA Today has made a ''pragmatic business decision,'' not based on ''any moral standing,'' to refuse ads from tout sheets or betting services. The reason, he says, is that the betting-information industry is in too much flux, making it hard to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate operators. Some of the latter reportedly turn toll-free 800 calls into referrals for a 900 number that charges for simple inquiries.

In Policinksi's view, any attempt to muzzle the traditional media from providing bettors with the information they want will only encourage what he calls ''an emerging industry'' of independent electronic services, ''unregulated and unfettered by any ethical considerations.''