College Gambling Continues
Sadly, college basketball gambling scandals have become so common you can almost set your watch by them.
"If you go back and look at the sports bribery convictions there's ... about one a decade," said Roxy Roxborough, a veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker.
The hoops scandals are so punctual it's eerie. Since 1950, college basketball has experienced a gambling problem once every 10 years or so. But what about college football? Its record has been next to spotless when it comes to game-fixing. Until now.
A couple of years ago, there was the embarrassing Boston College betting scandal that cost coach Dan Henning his job. Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that federal authorities are investigating several former Northwestern football players for attempting to shave points in 1994. And these are just the problems we know about. In college football, disgrace isn't watching the calendar.
The impossible is becoming at least a conversation piece. Fix a college football game? Perhaps it's too difficult with 22 players running in different directions. Whom do you approach -- a quarterback, a kicker, a center?
Perhaps we are being too ignorant. Now more than ever, the possibility of fixing a college football game lurks in the back of the minds of those charged with patrolling the game's integrity. It is the next unspoken scandal for the NCAA, schools and law enforcement officials trying to keep a sleazy genie in the bottle.
"It's naïve to believe it doesn't occur," said Bill Saum, the NCAA's agent and gambling representative. "The potential is there more than the general public seems to believe. All you need to do to control the outcome of the game is deal with someone who touches the ball. That could be the center, the quarterback, the running back, the wide receiver. In fact, I'm not so sure it wouldn't be easier in football (than in basketball)."
Former Northwestern player Brian Ballarini was indicted in a recent gambling scandal. (AP)
If that's a warning shot fired over the bow, we all better duck. Saum uses a noted study to point out that a quarter of 648 Division I football and basketball players surveyed admitted to gambling on other college games. Four percent of players gambled on the game in which they played. Three of those surveyed received money from a gambler for not playing well.
"There's infinite possibilities," said Gary Wyatt, the senior associate athletic director at Tennessee. "You have a key receiver drop a key pass in a crucial part of the ballgame. A running back who is your workhorse all the sudden happens to fumble. God forbid it would ever happen but you can't stick your head in the sand and say it won't happen."
If that isn't enough to douse your tailgate grill then nothing is. The late '90s have become a breeding ground for gambling scandals. Boston College, Arizona State, Northwestern and perhaps Colorado have all been embarrassed by illegal gambling activities in football and basketball.
And why not? The Nevada Gaming Commission estimated legal sports-book betting at $2 billion per year. Nationwide, there is $80 to $100 billion in illegal sports wagers per year. The proliferation of televised sports allows bettors to watch their investment. There are more sports to gamble on. Women's college and professional basketball is becoming a concern with the FBI because of their growing popularity.
All of it tears at the fabric that unites two strange bedfellows. Las Vegas and the NCAA have an even more intense interest in keeping the games square.
"Just because they don't like sports gambling doesn't mean we don't have the same goals," said Roxborough, who works closely with Saum in tracking the gambling industry, "which is the integrity of the games. If there's no integrity, they don't have a product and we don't either. It turns into professional wrestling."
No one wants that. No NCAA officials will tell you that game-fixing is rampant in college sports. It's the widespread campus gambling activity that sends up red flags. The possibility exists just below the surface. Northwestern basketball player Dion Lee got involved with former Northwestern football player Brian Ballarini, who was indicted for running a gambling ring. Lee was persuaded to shave points and now faces sentencing in November.
Saum said the Arizona State point-shaving case was the biggest in the history of intercollegiate athletics. Evidece showed that former player Stevin Smith was getting $20,000 per game to shave points.
"Sure it's a concern," Wyatt said. "If they can get to basketball, they can get to football, too. If organized crime is involved in it, they start threatening lives, threatening family lives, kids will do anything. It's very possible."
Wyatt is one of those at the forefront of the fight. Along with Saum and Knoxville FBI special agent Todd Sandstedt, Wyatt helped organize a gambling summit in August at Tennessee. It made national headlines because Lee and others awaiting sentencing spoke out against the problem as part of their plea agreements. A similar summit is planned for Sept. 30 in Chicago.
All three are former coaches who want to keep the game as pure as when they were involved in it. Saum is a former assistant football coach at Bowling Green. Wyatt coached football at Wichita State, Florida State, Georgia and Texas Tech. Sandstedt is a former assistant basketball coach at Appalachian State who is part of the FBI's stepped-up effort against college gambling.
"We found out some kids were involved in a parlay card thing on our team," Wyatt said. "I won't tell you which school I was at. Obviously, that scared us to death. They were betting on us to win but still they were in the middle of it. That could lead to things."
"It's not as simple as standing at the free-throw line and bouncing it off the rim," Saum said. "It could be jumping offside on the goal line. The point is, so many people say, 'Oh, it doesn't happen in football.' The point we want to make is, our coaches and administrators need to be cognizant of the fact that it can and will occur in football. There's just more history to it in basketball."
Saum arguably is the bulldog of the college anti-gambling movement. Two years ago his position was created by NCAA president Cedric Dempsey because of a growing concern. Since then, Saum, a former NCAA enforcement official, has shaped his office to work closely with both the FBI and former members of organized crime.
Former organized crime figure Mike Francese, "The Yuppie Don," is a regular during some of Saum's presentations to students, coaches and players. While not a crime figure, Roxborough is one of the nation's most influential line makers out of Las Vegas. He helped Saum set up a computer program in his Overland Park, Kan. office to track lines out of Vegas.
"I hang out with bad people and bad guys through the job," Saum said. "If you're going to do this, you better do this right."
Saum now knows that a move of three or four points in the weekly line can signal foul play that isn't limited to just players.
"Officials," one Las Vegas source said. "Everybody's talking about the players. The officials to me would be the ones. It's possible. I think officials are overlooked."
One official, J.C. Louderback was suspended for a week from he Big Eight in 1990 after the infamous "Fifth Down Game" at Missouri. Perhaps no other official in the history of the game had his integrity called into question more than Louderback did after that game.
At the end of that season he was forced to retire from the conference because of a league's mandatory retirement age of 57. Louderback, the crew chief that day in Columbia, Mo., persevered after leaving the Big Eight. He is working Conference USA games now in his 41st year of officiating.
"I never have had anyone approach me or my crew," Louderback said. "I really have not heard of any official being involved in any fix like that ... (but) it would really be tough recognizing it."
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