A different kind of March Madness for problem gamblers

By Richard N. Velotta (contact), In Business reporter  LAS VEGAS SUN

Fri, Mar 26, 2010 (3 a.m.)

For many sports fans, the best time of the year began last week and is continuing this weekend and next.
March Madness.

It’s the time of year for miracle three-pointers at the buzzer and college basketball teams from schools few people have ever heard of to have the chance to take down the powerhouses.

Because the NCAA tournament is an event stretched out over three weekends, there’s a greater effect than a single-day event such as the Super Bowl at Nevada’s sports books.

Nevada is the only state where legal wagering occurs. On opening weekend, when 64 teams in the tournament were playing, Las Vegas’ sports books were jammed with hoops fans making wagers.

Although March is a special time for Las Vegas, it unleashes a different kind of Madness for Arnie Wexler, who regularly lectures on the dangers of compulsive gambling, especially during the NCAA tournament and especially by college students.

“Because it’s stretched out over a long period, it’s the biggest gambling event of the year,” said Wexler, who says he placed his last bet April 10, 1968, and has been involved in helping compulsive gamblers for the past 40 years.

During March Madness, Wexler doubles his awareness efforts, claiming the big basketball tournament sucks in unsuspecting students who enjoy the thrill of winning a wager, then find themselves gambling money they once dedicated to educational expenses.

Wexler says the addictive gambling behavior has worsened with the growth of the Internet.

“We can’t stop it, and it’s getting worse,” he said. “Addiction is an impulse and with the Internet, you can jump on your computer in the middle of the night and lose thousands of dollars in no time.”

The NCAA and professional sports leagues have hypocritical stances on gambling, Wexler said.

He said he has tried to persuade the NCAA to act on growing evidence that gambling on college campuses is out of control. The organization pays him lip service and sends him on his way, he says. Its effort to combat gambling is to show student athletes a tired 20-minute film warning them not to associate with professional gamblers who may try to influence them to throw games, Wexler said.

The NCAA also provides a “gambling hotline” that rings into its office so that students can report illegal activity.
“What kid in his right mind is going to call the NCAA office?” Wexler said. “An athlete who did that would be barred from playing. What the NCAA needs is a real program that teaches about addiction.”

Professional leagues have their own problems, he said. Most have no problem talking about favorites and underdogs in their releases and broadcasts, and all operate their own “fantasy leagues” using statistics generated from games for fans to compete with one another for prizes.

Wexler had a few choice blasts for newspapers that publish gambling lines and point spreads.

“Why don’t they at least publish a phone number for people to call if they have gambling problem if they’re going to publish those lines?” he said. “I can’t even get the newspapers to do that. At least on cigarette packages, there are warnings that smoking is harmful to your health.”

Wexler wonders how much productivity has been lost in the American workplace this month with employees moving their attention from work to March Madness tournament brackets. He knows attention to academics is being diverted on college campuses across the country.

He said about one-third of the calls he received in the past three years on his gambling addiction hotline — 888-LAST BET — came from people from the age of 12 to 25. At the Comprehensive Addiction Rehabilitation Education center, C.A.R.E. Florida, near Wexler’s Boynton Beach, Fla., home, seven people are in treatment for gambling addictions. Five of them started gambling when they were in college.

“It’s completely out of control and it’s on college campuses everywhere,” he said.

The atmosphere at UNLV is a little different from other college campuses, since sports wagering is legal in Nevada for people 21 and older. But it’s just as pervasive.

Sage Sammons, sports editor of UNLV’ student newspaper The Rebel Yell, says the three questions that always come up in his circles are who’s playing, at what time and what’s the line.

Because sports wagering is legal, the gambling culture is more about social interaction than trying to beat the books.
“My friends usually bet anywhere from $10 to $150,” Sammons said. “The biggest bet one of my friends made was $100 on one game, and we were all looking at him like he was crazy.”

Sammons said he has seen some addictive gambling behavior in friends of friends.
“Some friends know a guy who gambled $1,000 at the opening of Aria,” he said. “A friend of a friend blew through $2,000 in one night, most of it on blackjack. Most of us can’t do that — that’s a semester’s worth of tuition.”

But he and his friends have seen some students move back in with their parents because they couldn’t handle the financial pressures, including gambling losses.

Although sports wagering is legal in Nevada, Sammons admits he has seen some instances where underage gamblers have convinced older fraternity brothers to place a bet for them.

“It’s like a rite of passage,” he said. “When I turned 21, one of the first things I did was get a beer at the sports book bar and place a bet.”

As sports editor, he has plenty of contact with student athletes and he said he has never seen or heard of any UNLV athletes betting on sports.

“There’s too much at stake for them,” he said. “They’d have their scholarships revoked, and they would be in trouble for a long time. I would be 100 percent shocked if there are any athletes at UNLV that gamble.”

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