Sportin' Life: Gambling on American Campuses

Nov 11, 1999 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

When you think of gambling, what comes to mind? Tawdry showgirls and Vegas "adventures," or your roommate's computer and Saturday's home football game? It may be time to rethink.

When Robin Ventura hit his game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the 15th inning to beat the Atlanta Braves in last month's National League Championship Series, a huge groan went up on college campuses across the country. No, I'm not referring to Braves fans. (That came later, courtesy of the other New York team.) You see, when Ventura's Mets teammates mobbed him, preventing him from scoring, his hit went into the record books as a single, not a home run æ making the final score 4 to 3.

"Big deal" you say. It was if you bet "over" on what oddsmakers call the "over-under." Las Vegas had put the "over-under" at 7&1/2, meaning that the two teams had to combine for eight runs in order for people betting the "over" to win. That little Mets celebration cost gamblers money. And, if surveys are any indication, a lot of the people who bet on the game were college students. You may not be aware of how many of your peers gamble. Jim Caswell, the vice-president for student affairs at Southern Methodist University, didn't know how prevalent the practice was, either. That is, until a student told him about on-campus recruiting efforts by online gambling sites at the school. SMU isn't the only place where these unregulated gambling sites are holding their version of rush week. According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, other schools report that nonstudents have been seen passing out cards with the URLs to gambling sites at Student Unions and fraternity houses.

Lots of your classmates place more than the occasional wager. How many? One survey of 1700 students at schools across the country found that 33 percent of all male students and 15 percent of all female students bet on sporting events at least once a week. The incidence may be even higher among athletes. A survey of students attending member schools in the Southeastern Conference, home to such sports powers as Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Alabama, found that student-athletes may be twice as likely than non-athletes to bet on sports. In fact, 4 percent of the athletes involved admitted to betting on the games they played. When you consider that what they are admitting to can result in their being banned from competition, you can reasonably infer that the problem may actually be much worse.

These numbers sound right to William Saum, the Director of Agent Activities and Gambling for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organization that governs intercollegiate sports. Saum told Boundless about two other studies of gambling among college athletes. They estimated that between 20 and 30 percent of male football and basketball players, and 20 percent of female basketball players, regularly bet on sporting events.

According to Saum, the NCAA is "very concerned" about gambling among all students and not just athletes. After all, most of the bets placed by athletes are placed with student bookmakers. The prevalence of gambling threatens the "integrity of the game," said Saum æ a concern ratified by recent point-shaving and gambling scandals at Northwestern, Boston College and Arizona State. That's why getting the problem under control is one of the NCAA's "five strategic points," as outlined in a recent speech by NCAA president Ced Dempsey.

The "Hows" & "Whys" of Betting on Campus

Two words summarize the "how" of gambling on campus: technology and access to credit. If you're reading this, it won't come as a surprise to you that computers and the Internet play an important role in the spread (sorry for the unintentional pun) of gambling on campuses across the country. You know better than anybody else that there's lots more that you can do with that computer your school required you to buy than simply writing papers.

And if your school is at all typical, it makes going online very easy: wired dorms rooms and free or reduced-cost Internet access. It's as if school administrators are telling you, "If you're serious about the college experience, please surf the web!"

The problem is not everything online is beneficial. This "more" includes more than 300 websites — up from 15 only three years ago — where you can gamble your life away without ever putting on your pants. All of these sites are located offshore — such as The Casino of The Kings, where you can bet on almost anything æ in places like Antigua, where they escape the scrutiny of state and federal regulators. (While checking the gambling websites as part of my research, I learned just how aggressive these folks can be. I was bombarded with spam for weeks after just looking around. Imagine if I had actually placed a bet!)

But there's more to technology and gambling than just computers. Today's unprecedented access to gambling sites has been accompanied by unprecedented access to sporting events. Not only on your campus, but on campuses and stadiums across the country. There are literally thousands of games — pro and college football, pro and college basketball and other sports — on television. ESPN alone will televise hundreds of college basketball games. And, televising these games makes a difference. As Saum says, "People like to bet on what they can watch."

But technology alone isn't enough. Online gambling sites wouldn't be passing out cards if you didn't have the money to bet on games. (After all, how else do you place a bet with someone in Antigua if you're stuck in Grand Rapids?) And where do you get the money? Unless your parents are rich, it comes from plastic. According to a report on National Public Radio, you receive 25 credit card solicitations per semester. And 67 percent of you have credit cards, according to an NCAA study cited by Saum, with an average spending limit of $5,000. The average credit card debt of today's graduating senior is $2,200. Given the incidence of sports betting, it's a safe bet that a significant portion of that debt represents money lost betting on sporting events.

But understanding gambling among your peers also requires understanding why people bet. Keith Whyte, the president of the National Council on Problem Gambling, gave Boundless what he called a "rough profile" of why men and women bet. Men do it for what Whyte describes as "macho" reasons. It's a way of proving how smart or daring they are. Men in general, and young men in particular, are more inclined than their female counterparts towards risk-taking, and there are few things as risky as betting money on a event over which you have no control.

Saum agrees with Whyte's assessment and adds that this psychological profile partially explains why male athletes are so inclined towards gambling. Sports breeds aggressiveness. Like many of their non-athletic counterparts, young male athletes think that they are invincible. Add to the mix the fact that many athletes have been coddled almost all their lives; they don't believe the rules apply to them. All of this puts young male athletes at a particular risk for problem gambling. In some respects, Saum's profile applies to female athletes as well. Unlike their non-athletic counterparts, they live in a world that rewards aggression and risk-taking. So, it shouldn't surprise anyone that they might also be drawn to gambling.

Whyte hastened to add that the lack of prevention and education efforts makes it harder for students to avoid the pitfalls of gambling. Think back to orientation. You probably heard a lot about AIDS. You may have even gotten a little "welcome kit" with condoms. Lately, you've probably heard lectures about substance and binge drinking. But has anyone ever told you anything about compulsive gambling? It's as though your school is in denial about the extent of the problem. And, as Whyte told Boundless, without prodding, very few of you are likely to show up in treatment on your own.

There's one last "why" that needs to be mentioned in any discussion of gambling on campus: our culture's attitudes towards gambling. Gambling, like the poor, has always been with us. But, 25 years ago, gambling was legal in only one state: Nevada. If you wanted to place a bet, you either had to fly somewhere like Las Vegas or the Bahamas, or you had to make the acquaintance of people with bent noses and nicknames like "the undertaker." Between the tackiness of the Strip and the danger inherent in dealing with the Mob, gambling was considered to be tawdry æ something decent folk didn't do.

How times have changed! Today, nearly every state has some form of legalized gambling. States spend millions of dollars to persuade their residents that gambling not only isn't gauche, it's your civic duty. Here in Virginia, television commercials feature "Lady Luck" chiding people if they don't play the lottery often enough. Of course, these ads downplay the long odds against winning. And they don't make any mention of the many lives that have been ruined by compulsive gambling. No, the message is "gambling is cool. Just make sure that the government gets its share of the action."

This has created a cultural attitude that views gambling as an innocent, victimless form of entertainment. The result is that people have become "less sensitive to the perils of gambling," as Saum puts it. These perils stem from the indisputable fact that gambling can be addictive. Once hooked, people will do almost anything to facilitate their gambling habit. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission held hearing around the country where they heard from some of the many people whose lives were ruined by compulsive gambling. The funny thing is not one them thought to themselves, "I think I'll place a bet and get a head start on screwing up my life" when they first ventured into it.

Like Josh Wishoff, they learned about these "perils" the hard way. While a student at San Diego State, Josh got into gambling. He considered it a "victimless form of entertainment." Before he knew what hit him, he owed $15,000. His utilities were turned off for non-payment. He maxed out his credit cards to finance his gambling. He'd write checks to pay his bills and then stop payment on the checks to use the money for his habit. Sometimes, he would literally spend the last penny in his pocket, forcing him to walk home because he didn't have cab fare. And, a social life? Forget it.

When he bottom, his parents stepped in and forced him to get help. They agreed to help him pay off his debts and gave him a place to live rent-free. But, in exchange for the help, they demanded and got an agreement with Josh that allows them to manage his money æ in other words, he turns over his entire paycheck to them. He's a 25 year old who still gets an allowance.

Josh doesn't resent the intervention or the admittedly humiliating price he paid for their help. As he sees it, this arrangement probably saved his life. Now, you may consider Josh a "loser" and be telling yourself "this will never happen to me." Maybe. But then again, that's just what Josh and others who have learned the hard way told themselves, too.

Copyright © 1999 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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