Throwing The Game

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Is it possible that an industry in one state can stymie legislation sought by community leaders in the other 49?

You bet.

Not only is it possible. That's the way it works in the world of campaign contributions. Gambling on college sports is a case study of how Big Money runs Washington.

Eight years ago, at the urging of worried coaches and university presidents, Congress outlawed betting on collegiate sports in every state except Nevada.

Since then, the big money at stake has become a bad influence on campus, riddling college sports with such corruption as game rigging and point shaving. Dozens of athletes have been convicted or suspended. When you follow the money in these cases, it leads to one place: Nevada. That's because student athletes profit from legal bets placed in Las Vegas and Reno casinos, and, far more significantly, bookies in the other 49 states funnel illegal bets into those casinos to protect themselves from having to pay out on unlikely winners at high odds.

There has been an outcry from universities and even some alarmed members of Congress. But the 1992 law still holds, and gambling on college games is thriving as never before in Nevada. Legislation meant to deal with that problem, favored by a congressional majority, remains buried on Capitol Hill.

What gives?

Nevada gives, that's what. In particular, the gaming industry gives to Congress--and gives and gives, in the form of contributions to both political parties totaling more than $16 million over the past six years. That's four times as much money as the gaming industry sent to Washington in the previous six years. And it's enough, apparently, to persuade congressional leaders to band together to stop (so far) a proposed bill that would end the Nevada exemption from even reaching the floor of either the House or the Senate. If there is an object lesson here, it is this: Money talks in Washington, and it talks loud enough to drown out supporters of the most well-meaning legislation, no matter how large their numbers, no matter how influential they might seem to be. It's almost as if the gamblers are keeping prominent lawmakers of both parties on retainer.

And a lucrative retainer it is. In November 1997, Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican and Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senator from Kentucky who believes unlimited campaign cash is a free-speech right, flew to Las Vegas aboard the jet of casino impresario Steve Wynn to attend a gaming industry G.O.P. fund raiser. The Republicans left with $100,000--the start of something big. Within a year, additional casino contributions would boost that sum to nearly $1 million.

In May 1999, Richard Gephardt, the Democratic Congressman from Missouri and House minority leader, and his colleague Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, flew to Las Vegas to pick up a check from Wynn in the amount of $250,000. The money went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And this week Gephardt and Rangel plan to return for yet another fund raiser, where they hope to raise $500,000.

For America's $30 billion-a-year gambling industry, the system has worked nicely. When some members of Congress tried to end the individual income tax deduction for gambling losses, key Republicans and Democrats buried the measure. Twice. Now casinos want to kill the legislation outlawing betting everywhere on collegiate and all amateur sports that would close the Nevada loophole. The legislation has the support of coaches and university administrators from Florida to Oregon. But it has been bottled up by the congressional leadership since April, despite growing pressure from reformers like Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.

In the 1990s, when gambling on college sports became a major attraction at Las Vegas casinos--the betting action topped $2 billion a year, and the NCAA basketball championship rivaled the Super Bowl as the single largest gambling event--more college athletes were involved in fixing games or wagering on college teams than in any of the decades before legalized gaming became popular. Some of that action flowed into Nevada from illegal gambling networks across the country. Among the college gambling cases since 1992:

The University of Maine suspended 19 members of its football and basketball teams for their roles in a $10,000-a-week gambling operation; the University of Rhode Island and Bryant College uncovered a gambling ring involving student athletes; a Northwestern University running back who became the school's career rushing leader fumbled the football on the goal line to ensure that his team would not beat the point spread and that he would win his $400 wager; a Central Florida student team manager was convicted in federal court of offering $15,000 in bribes to players to hold down scoring and cover the point spread in a basketball game with Stanford; Boston College suspended 13 members of its football team for betting on college sports, including three who reportedly bet against their own team; two Arizona State players were convicted and sent to prison for shaving points; two former Northwestern University basketball players were convicted of rigging games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan, a scam organized by a former Notre Dame place kicker turned bookie; four former Northwestern football players pleaded guilty to perjury charges after lying to grand juries investigating sports betting at the school; and last year the University of Michigan released a study saying that nearly half of the male athletes in the survey acknowledged wagering on college sports. The study indicated that 1 of every 20 players shaved points, bet on his own games or leaked insider information about players to gamblers.

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