Sports Nut

Handicap and Gown

What’s wrong with betting on college sports?

John McCain has discovered another evil force undermining the greatness of American society: betting on college sports. It’s an attractively slow-moving target. Outside of Nevada, you will find very few official supporters of it, and that’s because Nevada is the only state in which such betting is legal. The NCAA has long advocated such a ban, but the gambling lobby in Washington, D.C., dominated by Bush I cronies, had been sufficiently powerful to keep them at bay. Then McCain came along and recognized the issue as a perfect outlet for his particular brand of sanctimony.

This is a bogus, self-serving crusade, and, not surprisingly, it’s met with any number of rote objections. They range from the old plaint of “Don’t we have bigger problems to worry about?” to briefs on states’ rights. (Since only Nevada allows it, a federal ban amounts to Washington telling a particular state what it can and cannot do.) A less common but no less persuasive argument is that singling out college sports for the ban serves to protect the cherished but increasingly phony distinction between college and professional sports.

McCain’s ban limits the right of sports fans to enjoy games the way we want to enjoy them, and this is a right that we have not only earned, we paid for it. Once upon a time, in the heyday of unitards and medicine balls, intercollegiate games were private affairs, held in basement gyms or on remote lawns, and if anyone bothered to go and watch, it was an athlete’s dad or girlfriend or roommate. Over the years, however, these contests have metastasized into overblown public spectacles underwritten by the sports consumer. Never mind the exorbitant expense of actually attending a game. We cover the costs of big-time college sports every time we buy a pair of Nike sneakers, a liter of Sprite, or any of the other myriad products advertised on NCAA telecasts.

In order to maximize the profit potential, the overseers of big-time college sports have turned their games into public events, and in that sense, they belong to us. If it adds to our pleasure to wager on them, what right does anyone have to stop us? If the NCAA is so concerned with integrity, stop letting the coaches and universities collect millions for turning their kids, who play for free, into billboards. Put the games back in the basement. Then we’ll talk about the itsy-bitsy issue of gambling.

If, on the other hand, the concern is that gamblers will prey on callow, defenseless scholar-athletes and coerce them into shaving points and throwing ballgames, well, isn’t that the best argument for full legalization? Think about it: The more gamblers there are and the more aboveboard their activity, the less chance that anyone is going to be able to get away with improperly influencing the outcome of a game. The marketplace won’t stand for it.

If this sounds like an argument that only a gambler could make, well, maybe it is. I have bet semiregularly on professional and collegiate sports ever since I came home from a crushing day at the office a couple of years ago, scanned the TV schedule for some sporting event to narcotize myself, and could find only a Steelers-Chiefs game. Unable to conjure up a good reason to root for or against Elvis Grbac, the pitiful Chiefs quarterback, I had an inspiration: I could put money on the game! Suddenly, I was gripped by a crystal-clear vision of a defensive struggle, a sputtering Kansas City offense, and a narrow Steelers victory. So, I went online, found an offshore bookie, and bet $350 ($250 on Pittsburgh plus six, $100 that the total points scored would be less than 35). I watched every second of the game, screaming insanely every time Grbac was thrown to the turf. I can safely say I have never enjoyed a sporting event so thoroughly before or since.

There are obvious pitfalls of such behavior, if it ever developed into a habit. But it’s no more dangerous than plenty of other fully legal vices. For people hellbent on bankrupting themselves, I recommend the stock market. It’s quicker, easier, and there’s no social stigma attached. Maybe John McCain ought to get concerned about that.