WASHINGTON — When the phone rings at work this time of year, Arnie Wexler has a good idea who's calling. Often, it's a college student who's lost his tuition money for the next semester.
Mr. Wexler, a compulsive-gambling counselor in New Jersey, has heard virtually every tale of woe in his 30 years of taking calls. But in March, the volume on the hot line usually goes up - and the personal tales get more wrenching.
The reason: "March madness" - tournament time for college basketball - has become one of the biggest betting periods of the year.
Indeed, experts estimate that as much as $750 million will be wagered during the three-week period, through everything from office pools to bookmaking operations. Particularly disturbing to counselors: Much of the action is being generated by college-age students.
"I get calls from these kids all the time," says Wexler. "Part of the problem is the legalization and social acceptability of gambling."
At that age, winning a wager is like bungee jumping: It's more of a thrill, says Bill Thompson, a gambling expert at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. But losing can force students to gamble again in an attempt to recoup their losses.
The frisson surrounding the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament is expanding, which critics worry will translate into even more betting. The NCAA has signed a $6.2 billion contract with CBS for TV and Internet rights to the tournament.
By the time the arena lights are turned off on the final game April 3, a record 200 million TV viewers are expected to have watched some of the games. An estimated 10 million fans will go online to get odds or more information on teams, often to place wagers.
Mainstream Web sites, ranging from CBS.SportsLine.com to pure sports outlets like ESPN, post the daily odds, as do most daily newspapers.
Only a few national dailies do not publish the odds, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
Depth of the problem
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission last year estimated as much as $380 billion is wagered illegally on sports in the United States each year. It determined that 12 percent of Americans under age 21 gamble excessively.
With this year's obsession with March madness peaking at all-time highs, the NCAA and some in Congress are considering passing a ban on all amateur sports betting next year in the few states where it is still legal. That includes Delaware, Oregon, Montana, and Nevada.
"The NCAA believes it's inappropriate to bet on teenagers," says Doris Dixon, director of federal relations for the NCAA in Washington. "If something is warranted by federal prohibition, why would you exempt one state? You don't see cocaine exempted in Texas, for example."
Supporters of the ban say gambling erodes the integrity of amateur games and is creating a new form of addiction, particularly among the young.
Gambling, especially on amateur sports, has become a focus in the wake of a spate of point-shaving scandals in the 1990s and evidence of increased wagering by college students. A recent University of Michigan study showed that 72 percent of all college athletes had bet during their academic careers.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas plans to introduce legislation augmenting a 1992 measure that bans betting on professional and amateur sports in all states.
Though the measure stalled earlier this year, Mr. Brownback hopes to reintroduce it in the Commerce Committee, where Arizona Sen. John McCain, a supporter, might weigh in more effectively with his newfound clout from the campaign trail.
"The gambling industry feels like they have the bill captured," says Mr. Brownback. "But my bill is like the tournament, quite unpredictable right now."
Don't blame us
The gambling industry, for its part, argues that the problem of underage betting does not stem from legal wagering. A blanket ban on amateur sports wagering would simply drive it underground. The real problem, the industry suggests, is the illegal bookmaking, especially at universities.
"Every college campus in America has illegal bookies: That is the problem," says Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association in Washington. "When is the last time the NCAA broke a betting ring on campus?"
Mr. Fahrenkopf also insists legal operations in Nevada have actually revealed point-shaving scandals, tipping off the FBI after discovering anomalous betting patterns.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society