Sports Betting Changes Meaning of 'the Big Game'

Gridiron gambling must have seemed like a sure bet at the time. The Boston College players knew the teams and they knew the plays. The risk was getting caught - and that's exactly what happened.

Thirteen members of the Division 1 team are suspended from play, starting with tomorrow's big game against Notre Dame, for gambling on college and professional sports. Two face charges of betting against their own team.

While the news has shocked alumni and administrators at the Roman Catholic college, sports betting is in fact a growing and disturbing problem on campuses across the country. Even before the revelations here, some colleges had already moved to curb the phenomenon - efforts that are likely to be stepped up now.

"Gambling's a real disaster; it's an epidemic among college students," says Arnie Wexler, a compulsive-gambling counselor and the former head of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

It was only a matter of time before a widespread scandal erupted on a college campus, experts say. The number of student athletes who gamble has gotten so large that the National Collegiate Athletic Association is giving the problem top priority. Two months ago, it designated a coordinator to deal solely with gambling and agent violations, and last January it expanded a NCAA bylaw outlawing sports betting to include betting on professional games.

The NCAA has two concerns. First, student athletes who gamble on sports may begin betting on their own games and eventually fix the outcomes to win their bets, undermining the integrity of every college game. "It's like everything else in life - you start at A and end up at Z," says Bill Saum, NCAA coordinator of agent and gambling issues.

Second, NCAA officials say, they are worried students will accumulate huge debts they will be unable to pay.

A mirror on society

Sports betting has always been available to college students, but over the past decade betting on campuses has experienced a boom that mirrors the growth of gambling in society at large. Gambling has increasingly become a part of how America entertains itself - from riverboat gambling to casinos and the proliferation of state lotteries.

In fact, young people have become the biggest problem gamblers of any age group. A 1990 study by Illinois State University showed that 23 percent of college students gamble at least once a week. That study, the most recent available, reports that 5-1/2 percent of college students are problem gamblers, the highest rate of any age group.

Today, experts say it's easy for students to place a bet on campus: Professional bookmakers extend generous credit to students before asking them to pay up, and the number of students making a business out of collecting their colleagues' wagers is on the rise.

Student athletes, researchers say, are particularly susceptible to sports betting and the difficulties that come with it. They tend to have unreasonable optimism and big egos - traits that can make gambling seem attractive. They also have free time on their hands during game trips, when they can bet on card games or gamble in airport casinos, behaviors that break down any taboo of sports betting.

But the biggest factor drawing athletes to wagering is love of and knowledge of the sport. If they are betting on college teams, it is likely they've played against some of them. If they're gambling on professional games, they are likely to be longtime followers of certain pro teams. Gamblers feel that betting on a game notches up the thrill of watching it, research shows. And having inside knowledge makes a player feel he is placing a sure bet.

In the Boston College case, the district attorney in charge of the investigation found that players had bet on college and professional football games and the World Series, wagering as much as $1,000 on some games. The investigation is continuing.

Boston College was also involved in a point-shaving basketball scandal in the 1978-79 season. One of the players was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement.

Finding a solution

School officials say they were astounded by the football team's sports betting and by reports that wagering is an ingrained part of the school's campus life.

"This has been an eye-opening experience for us," says Kevin Duffy, vice president for student affairs and head of Boston College's internal review committee. "We definitely want to start an intense education program not only for athletes, but for all of our students."

Wexler says that education and enforcement by college officials are the only ways to root out the problem of gambling on campus. Colleges need to treat gambling as they do drugs and alcohol, offering counseling services and Gamblers Anonymous meetings, he says. He points to a workshop sponsored by the University of Kentucky athletic department in September, where the school's athletic director, an ex-FBI agent, Wexler, and a National Basketball Association official spoke with athletes about the dangers of gambling.

"We need to be able to have kids turn themselves in if they have a problem before it destroys their life," Wexler says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.