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.
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.''
Touching other bases
*Pop quiz: The international bowling federation is in which country: the United States, Ireland, or Finland? (Answer appears at end.)
*The switch from CBS to ESPN should be a plus for the women's Final Four basketball tournament. When ESPN begins televising the event next year, it will give the teams a rest day between the semifinals and final, avoiding the back-to-back, Saturday-Sunday games that have come to mark the championship rounds. Even given the short turnaround, however, the University of Connecticut and the University of Tennessee produced an exciting final on Sunday. UConn won, 70-64, to complete a 35-0 season. The new format calls for Friday night semifinals, followed by a Sunday title game.
*For Boston University's hockey team, the fifth time was the charm. In the regular season, the Terriers had lost twice and been tied twice by the University of Maine, but on Saturday they beat the defending national champions 6-3 for this season's title. If that made the Black Bears blue, it made BU happy and more than a little relieved. For the past year, the Boston University players have been looking to erase some of the hurt from an embarrassing 9-1 loss to Lake Superior State in last year's championship game.
*Jim Apfelbaum of Austin, Texas, is convinced that many golfers have lost sight of the game's simpler pleasures. He also believes that thrift, ''the traditional Scottish virtue,'' remains central to the sport. That's why he's begun publishing a modest bimonthly newsletter for the cost-conscious called Bottom Dollar Golf. One of its interesting finds, shared in the first issue, is that Budget Rent-a-Car in Phoenix also rents clubs. ''Ten dollars snares a set of Hogan Radials for up to a month,'' Apfelbaum writes. For a free copy of Bottom Dollar Golf, call: (800) 473-0142.
*Here's some Boston baseball news that sounds so geographically ambitious as to be amusing: Last week the Red Sox named Harry Smith director of Pacific operations. That means he will oversee scouting and player development in Australia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and western Canada.
*An interesting coincidence came to light last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player, the former Big Three of the sport, played a round together in The Tradition, a major Senior PGA Tour championship. On the 171-yard seventh hole, Player scored a hole-in-one, the 17th of his career. Palmer and Nicklaus, it turns out, claim an identical number of aces. Nicklaus went on to win the tournament over one of his own layouts, the Cochise Course at Desert Mountain, by beating Isao Aoki, sometimes called the Japanese Nicklaus, in a playoff. Player and Palmer finished well back.
*Doesn't the lack of spectator and media enthusiasm for track and field in the United States seem amazing? Outside the Olympics, most American sports fans probably can't name a single major track meet or more than a superstar or two
*Quiz answer: Finland. In 1954, Helsinki hosted bowling's first world tournament. The US plays host this summer in Reno, Nev.