Potential New Legislation Is a Real Bad Proposition

We have office pools and country club pools and family pools.

But this isn't about swimming. It is about the $5 wager you have with your buddy at the next desk on the UCLA-USC game. Any game. Football, basketball, baseball, soccer, men or women.

We have computers, most of us, and we can easily find betting sites on our computers, ones run out of a Caribbean island, ones under no U.S. regulation. We can find a bookie just by asking--at the local tavern, sports bar, our neighbor, our boss. We can go to any college campus, ask around for about five minutes and find an entrepreneurial business student who will make book or find someone who will, on anybody's basketball game.

So while it might feel good, even seem noble, for South Carolina football Coach Lou Holtz, Penn State basketball Coach Jerry Dunn and Georgia State basketball Coach Lefty Driesell to run around Washington D.C. this week asking senators and congressmen to close the "Nevada loophole," the loophole which allows legal gambling on intercollegiate athletics in the state, all their energy is misguided.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) among others, would make gambling on college sports illegal in all 50 states.

Like making it illegal will make it go away.

No way.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), whose district includes Las Vegas, was a University of Nevada regent when UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian was fighting his battles with the NCAA.

"Having had contact with that organization," Berkley says, "I am no more impressed with the NCAA today than I was then. I am against this bill. The primary reason? It will do absolutely nothing to stem the tide of illegal betting."

Berkley says that $2 billion is bet legally in Nevada on college sports versus $380 billion bet illegally everywhere else. "When it's legal, you have to be 21, you have to be present," Berkley says. "Of the 64 college teams in the men's NCAA tournament last year, all 64 universities had student computer access in their dorm rooms. All those students could bet, from their rooms, on those Caribbean Web sites.

"Do you think stopping gambling in Las Vegas is going to stop gambling on college campuses or the street corners? This bill is like outlawing aspirin and saying the drug problem is under control."

Berkley says that the coaches who were in Washington this week "ought to go back to their college campuses, implement anti-gambling programs and get control of their student-athletes."

She also says that coaches such as Holtz, Dunn and Driesell are "either very naive and so under the thumb of the NCAA that they just came to Washington to do the NCAA's bidding, foolishly. Or they are very duplicitous."

The tough-talking Berkley has a point. Vegas bookmakers aren't the problem. Legal oddsmakers can also be watchdogs, and they have tipped off universities when unusual betting activity occurs. Your local bookie or the off-shore online betting sites won't do that.

McCain has chosen to side with the college coaches. "Joe Paterno came to my office," McCain says. "Dean Smith has spoken to me. I don't claim to be an expert on this and I don't claim that our amendment is a panacea. But I have to take the words of the experts. Of the coaches."

Berkley says phooey to that. She says coaches should know better than to think banning betting in Nevada will make any difference. She wonders if coaches would prefer more illegal betting, the kind that goes through a criminal element, an element which might be much more inclined to make personal pleas to college athletes to throw games.

McCain says phooey to that. He says that the very fact there is a legitimate betting line being made every day in Las Vegas, a line that is printed in many newspapers, legitimizes college bookies and the betting Web sites that fill the Internet.

The NCAA is backing McCain's bill, which would ban betting on college sports and also maintain the rules keeping high school and Olympic sports off the boards. McCain says he was shocked last month when opponents of the bill nearly killed the legislation in the Senate Commerce Committee. It survives, but barely.

Why the close call? McCain says five of the senators who were against the bill are up for reelection and that Nevada gambling interests are being liberal with campaign funds.

That's why the college coaches came to Washington. To give a pep talk they hope will change some minds.

Berkley has no use for the pep talks. "It's all a smoke screen," the congresswoman says, "for their own ineptitude, their own inadequacy. Why doesn't the NCAA take some of that $6 billion it got from the NCAA for television rights and provide some anti-gambling programs on the college campuses?"

Makes sense.

But McCain has a rebuttal.

"When you become a coach, you are often recruiting kids from low-income areas," McCain says.

"Those kids are under your wing, you are responsible for him. When these coaches, men like Coach Paterno, come to my office and say, 'Please, remove this temptation from these young people,' you have to believe they know what they are talking about."

It's hard not to be a fan of Joe Paterno. But, in this case, it's even harder to agree with him.

If a line isn't set in Vegas, it will be set somewhere else. If coaches can't convince their players that something very bad will probably happen if they engage in any kind of gambling or point-shaving or game-fixing, then all the laws in the land aren't going to help.

All the college gambling scandals so far have happened in places where gambling was illegal. An anti-gambling law didn't stop the kids at Kentucky or Boston College or NYU or Arizona State.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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