My first experience with sports gambling came as a youngster. My father would come home with "parlay cards." They were always imprinted with the line, in bold type,
For Amusement Purposes Only.
And so, for a long time, I thought my pop was just having a good time as he scanned the teams and numbers, then circled some of those numbers on the bottom tear-off portion. Later, I discovered there was more than amusement involved because, on occasion, he'd say he'd "hit" a "three-teamer" or "four-teamer" and, as a result, was taking the family out to dinner.
That seemed like a good thing, indeed.
Early in my newspaper career, I gained far more intimate knowledge of parlay cards because they were-from the composing room to the press room to the editor's desk-a common sight. In the interest of full disclosure, I played the occasional parlay card. These days, I not only don't bet on sports, I rarely look at betting lines. Which means, this month, that probably puts me in a distinct minority.
The three-week NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is a feeding frenzy for sports gamblers, offering everything from an appetizer to the full-meal deal for those inclined to wager on the outcomes. The Internet has dozens of opportunities for contestants to fill in the brackets and be rewarded handsomely for selecting the most winners. Both legal and illegal sports books swell with customers; ditto for off-shore Internet gambling sites. And March is to your local bookie what December is to toy salesmen.
Estimates are, by the time the champion is crowned on April 4, nearly $3 billion will be wagered-most of it illegally-on the tournament.
The NCAA is caught betwixt and between. While accepting the reality that filling out those brackets lends to the charm-and the popularity-of the tournament, it does not condone, endorse or approve any kind of wagering ... even those dollar office pools.
And that is why its own rules are clear: Student-athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, conference staff and, yes, NCAA staff, cannot bet so much as a nickel without putting their eligibility or jobs in jeopardy.
Some consider the NCAA's anti-gambling stance hopelessly naÃ¯ve at best, Draconian at worst. The association counters that when the integrity of the game is at stake-and with a history marked by occasional point-shaving or game-fixing scandals-there is little alternative other than to draw a hard line.
Tasked with wrapping the NCAA's arms around that 800-pound gorilla is Bill Saum, the association's director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities.
"The important message we're trying to send is to give people pause," he says. "Certainly, in businesses in downtown Indianapolis, we're not going to stop those people from doing pools. But possibly they're thinking twice as parents before they include their children in those pools or letting their children operate those pools. And we would be very concerned, as would law enforcement, if those numbers get very high.
"Dollar pools are a violation of [NCAA] legislation because we cannot go down the slippery slope of where to draw the line, so we draw it at zero," he adds. "But no one here at the NCAA is suggesting that participation in a dollar pool is going to harm the tournament."
Rather than wage a futile battle against external forces, the NCAA's approach is to do the best it can to educate its own constituencies, in particular student-athletes, on the perils of gambling. It has instituted a national campaign called Don't Bet On It.
"It wouldn't take much money [to sway a student-athlete]," Saum says. "They hang out with the wrong person, they get involved in a situation they don't know how to get out of, they don't know who to go to. It can become overwhelming very quickly.
There's also education about sports gambling for youth through the Youth Education through Sports clinics conducted at NCAA championships.
"There's an incredible amount of money wagered through pools and sports books, and the illegal sports books," Saum says. "It is a phenomenon that's out there. We've just got to keep addressing it."
For Amusement Purposes Only.
Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.