Sports of The Times; ‘How Many of You Have Made an Illegal Bet?’

Published: January 6, 1999

IN its scarlet and black practice uniforms, the Rutgers men’s basketball team gathered in the Rutgers Athletic Center meeting room where the players usually listen to Coach Kevin Bannon and watch game tapes. But yesterday there were no X’s and O’s on the chalkboard, no videos rolling.

Instead, the Rutgers athletic director, Bob Mulcahy, introduced a guest speaker, Arnie Wexler, 59, who informed the players that ”gambling is the biggest killer on college campuses — bigger than drugs, bigger than alcohol.” And now Wexler was asking them questions.

”How many of you,” he said, ”have made a legal bet?”

Of the 10 players sitting there, three raised a hand.

Wexler nodded and asked, ”How many of you have made an illegal bet?”

Somewhat slowly but honestly, one hand went up.

Wexler seemed surprised, but pleased. He wasn’t there to take the names of those who raised their hands. He was there, in a way, to hold their hands.

As a recovering compulsive gambler since his last bet on ”April 10, 1968, that’s 11,228 days,” Wexler was there as a certified compulsive gambling counselor to warn the players about the pitfalls of gambling that can lead to the crime of point-shaving in basketball.

”How many kids,” Wexler asked now, ”have tried to bleed you for information on, say, how a teammate’s ankle is?”

When none of the players raised a hand, Wexler, once the executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, looked around at the young faces.

”It’s a miracle,” Wexler said, ”if it hasn’t happened to you.”

Wexler knew that it has happened too often on too many other campuses in recent years, notably in the point-shaving scandals at Northwestern and Arizona State and the gambling scandal at Boston College.

”And the better our team gets,” Mulcahy said, ”the more we’re going to see it.”

Wexler’s 90-minute lecture was a tribute to Mulcahy’s concern about gambling and its repercussions, a concern that more college athletic directors should address, a concern that the National Collegiate Athletic Association finally recognized in 1996 with the appointment of Bill Saum as its first director of agent and gambling activities.

Saum has visited 25 colleges to warn of campus bookies; he has also arranged for Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to speak to many other college teams.

Surveys by the N.C.A.A., according to Saum, show that 25 percent, or some 6,000, of the so-called student-athletes on Division I basketball and football teams have bet on college or pro games. And 4 percent, Saum said, bet on games they played in.

”Most of the bookmakers,” Wexler was saying now, ”are other students on the same campus.”

That’s how the Arizona State basketball point-shaving scandal started. Steven Smith, the Wildcats’ point guard, won a few dollars on video basketball with a campus bookie, Benny Silman, then switched to betting on real games and soon owed $10,000. Silman suggested shaving points. Smith and a teammate, Isaac Burton Jr., agreed.

Silman has been sentenced to 46 months in prison. Smith and Burton will be sentenced Feb. 1.

In 1951 the college basketball point-shaving scandals involved big-time New York gamblers in Madison Square Garden. Now it’s student gamblers on college campuses. And if the National Basketball Association’s season is canceled, there will be more gambling than ever on college basketball this season.

”People are betting in high school too,” Wexler said. ”They’re betting $100 a game on high school point spreads.”

Wexler knows. He hears the gambling stories all the time from people who call his 24-hour national hot line, , and ask how they can kick the compulsion as he did. But he didn’t kick it until gambling had brought him to the brink.

”When our baby was born, I asked the doctor the weight,” he remembered, ”and when he told me 7 pounds 1 ounce, I called my bookie and bet the 7-1 daily double. It got so that I owed 32 people three years’ salary and had $8 in the bank.”

And when Arnie Wexler finished talking yesterday, Kevin Bannon turned to him.

”This is on the money,” the coach said. ”We really appreciate it.”

All the players seemed to appreciate it, too. They can’t say they weren’t warned.

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