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Ban on amateur sports betting faces tough fight in Congress

WASHINGTON (BP)–Legislation prohibiting gambling on amateur athletic events has been introduced in Congress, and the Nevada casinos and their friends on Capitol Hill are mounting an aggressive campaign to thwart it.

The High School and College Sports Gambling Prohibition Act would outlaw legal wagering on high school and college sports, as well as the Summer and Winter Olympics. The sponsors of the bill say it is necessary to protect the integrity of amateur sports and to limit the influence gambling has on student-athletes.

The proposal, which was recommended last year in the report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, could help “restore the moral integrity of our country,” said a Southern Baptist anti-gambling specialist.

“When we allow such repugnant behavior as gambling on high school and college sporting activities to persist, we communicate to our young men and women that everything they do has a price tag,” said Barrett Duke of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“In sports, men and women demonstrate the marvelous capacity for physical and mental excellence that God has given to mankind. It is tragic that anyone would degrade this display of God’s creation by reducing it to a point spread and payout. The thrill should be in the contest, not in the odds.”

The impact of the bill would be felt most notably in Nevada, the only state where gambling on college sports is conducted. Casino interests and members of Nevada’s congressional delegation lashed out at the proposal.

Steve Wynn, head of the Las Vegas casino The Mirage, called the bill a “ridiculous proposal,” according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

“The sponsors of the bill are idiots, and they haven’t done their homework as usual,” said Wynn, a generous contributor to both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R.-Nev., blasted the bill as “misguided” and a “blatant case of Nevada-bashing.”

The bill’s sponsors, which include Democrats and Republicans, appear to be fighting not only the lobbying power of the gambling industry but the desire for gambling contributions by both parties’ leaders.

Sen. John Edwards, D.-N.C., still threw down the gauntlet to Nevada’s leading industry at a recent news conference announcing the bill’s introduction. “Don’t bet on this legislation not being passed,” Edwards said.

The bill’s sponsors hope the legislation has two other effects: (1) That states will appeal to the Nevada Gaming Control Board to not allow gambling on college athletics in their borders, and (2) that point spreads on college games will not be published in newspapers.

Gambling is not allowed in Nevada on contests involving in-state schools. Most major newspapers publish the point spreads of college football and basketball games. The Washington Post is an exception.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is strongly pushing the proposal. The NCAA forbids athletes at its member schools from placing any kind of bet on college or pro sports and from giving information to anyone who bets on a sports event. It has been shaken by a series of gambling scandals at NCAA schools in the 1990s, including point-shaving incidents in Arizona State basketball and Northwestern basketball and football. Both scandals involved heavy, legal betting at Nevada sports books, according to the NCAA.

“There have been more point-shaving scandals at our colleges and universities in the 1990s than in all other decades before it combined,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., at the Feb. 1 news conference. “We should not wait for another point-shaving scandal” before acting, he said.

Brownback and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., are the chief Senate sponsors, and Rep. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., and Rep. Tim Roemer, D.-Ind., are the lead sponsors in the House of Representatives.

Among organizations supporting the bill are not only the NCAA but the U.S. Olympic Committee, the National Federation of High Schools, as well as education, coaching and amateur sports organizations.

About $2.3 billion was bet last year in Nevada sports books, with one-third of that amount wagered on college sports, according to the NCAA.