The NCAA will require basketball referees to consent to random background checks by an independent security agent before they can work the men's and women's championship tournaments in March as a safeguard against potential gambling influences.
The changes, first reported Monday in the Los Angeles Times, allow the NCAA to ask referees about ownership of 10 percent or more in a business, bankruptcy filings, collection accounts, liens, lawsuits or judgments against.
Before, referees were only required to sign an affidavit regarding felony convictions for illegal sports wagering, sports bookmaking or sports bribery.
"The reason we're doing this is to protect the integrity of the game," said Bill Saum, the NCAA's director of agent and gambling activities. "Obviously, officials are a segment of society just like our coaches and student-athletes and ourselves, and we're all at-risk. This just ensures that all involved with our game have great integrity."
Saum said the changes, approved in July but not publicly announced, were not prompted by any single incident, and the NCAA has no evidence that any referee has ever been involved in a betting scandal by influencing the outcome of games.
But they come at a time when the NCAA has increased its antigambling efforts following several high-profile scandals, including the conviction of two Arizona State basketball players in 1997 for point-shaving and the indictment of several Northwestern players for shaving points, conspiring to fix games and accepting bets during the 1994-95 season.
The changes only affect the 192 officials involved in last year's men's and women's tournaments, Saum said. Each tournament draws its officials from a separate pool of 96 referees. Of those 96, 50 will be selected randomly for the background checks.
The only thing that would prevent an official from being able to work this year's tournament would be an infraction for sports wagering, sports bookmaking or sports bribery, Saum said.
Still, he said any suspicious connections will be investigated.
"If this individual owes money to a casino, we would look at that. We would sit down with that individual and gather more information," he said.
NCAA officials said most referees have embraced the plan, though some have expressed concerns that they're being unfairly singled out.
Even so, one Big East women's referee who's worked several NCAA tournaments said there's little point to protesting the changes or not signing the form. Officials work as independent contracts, and without a union or governing body they have little real power against the NCAA.
"If I declare bankruptcy, does that mean I associate with gamblers? If I have a bad credit rating, does that mean I associate with gamblers? That's an awfully big assumption," she said on the condition that her name not be used. "I've been in the business over 30 years, nd I'm not naive. I have yet to meet an official who hangs around with bookies who's going to fix the game. It just doesn't flow."
The change was instigated by the men's basketball committee, which began tossing around the idea almost two years ago. Since then, several other committees have checked off on the idea, and it was approved by the management council this summer. It was then introduced to referees at their annual educational clinics held in October.
"The NCAA legislation requires a high level of awareness from administrators, coaches, student athletes. The only group that was omitted was the basketball officials," said Craig Thompson, Mountain West Conference commissioner and chair of the men's basketball committee.
Thompson said some officials have expressed concerns about the changes, but more than two-thirds of the referees affected had already turned in their forms a week ago. The NCAA didn't have an exact count.
Saum said he will send a memo this week to those referees who have not signed the forms to address some of their concerns.
"There have been some people that have expressed dissatisfaction because it looks as though we're singling them out as a group, which we are not," Thompson said.
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