03/15/2002 1:00AM

The Madness of college betting foes


What a difference a year makes. Or, to be precise, six months and three days.

The phenomenon called March Madness will wrap up its first, and most exciting, weekend of this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament Sunday. By day's end, the opening field of 64 teams will have been whittled down to a Sweet 16 with the second weekend of action beginning on Thursday.

Just one year ago, the Nevada sports book industry was wondering if there would be a next year to their March Madness. As it is well known, the Silver State's gambling establishments are the only places where Americans can legally put up a few bucks to back their favorite team in college sport's biggest year-end championship.

Last year a groundswell of anti-gambling thinking had lawmakers calling press conferences and swiftly moving legislation that would have banned betting on collegiate games in Nevada sports books.

Leading that pack of legislators was Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., who had hurried a bill to ban betting on college sports through his committee - a bill that was expected to pass by a wide margin if it had ever made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

A strong lobbying effort by the gambling industry and Nevada's Senators, Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., slowed the process of the bill.

Then came Sept. 11. The priorities of Congress drastically changed after the terrorist attacks on our country, and, the ensuing war on terrorism that America declared put the college betting ban bill, which essentially affects a single state, on the back burner.

It seems that McCain has at least lost primary interest in forging ahead with the bill that has been sitting dormant since a Senate Commerce Committee meeting last May. McCain has his days full with completing a campaign finance reform bill and another bill requiring United States auto makers to increase mileage efficiency.

In addition, the Senate has changed since last summer, with Reid now the majority whip. While there are no immediate plans to revive the college betting ban bill, Reid, Ensign, and the industry lobbying arm are still keeping a weary eye on McCain. Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, said of the betting ban bill, "It's still breathing, but it's panting hard."

Many Senators have always agreed with Nevada lawmakers that the bigger problem is the enormous illegal wagering that takes place in the workplace, on college campuses,and with bookmakers, not within the legal activities in Nevada. Nor do they realize the fragment of action Nevada hosts compared with the magnitude of illegal wagering nationwide daily on sports - collegiate or otherwise.

That revelation is an understatement.

While I ventured away from Las Vegas last weekend to attend the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, I realized again what the lawmakers inside the Beltway will either never understand or don't want to. As I negotiated "mainstream America," there was not one time when someone didn't ask me about a betting line or odds on a team for the tournament when they found out I came from Las Vegas.

And, there were few places or people that weren't already in a tournament pool somewhere or betting with a bookie. As I made my way through airports and connecting flights on Monday, there was an abundance of USA Today's full brackets page that had heads buried in them and the published point spreads.

John R. McCain should ask John Q. Public about the betting ban.

Outside of those who flew into town alongside me, and others who packed Las Vegas by Thursday, a majority of Americans had - to some degree - participated in that dastardly act of illegally making a bet on the basketball tournament.

These are Americans placing a few harmless bucks on their alma matter or their favorite teams, not characters from the movie "Guys and Dolls."

So, enjoy participating with a few ducats on the tournament.

Mr. McCain, I'll take Duke over Enron and lay the points. And, be billions ahead - win, lose, or draw.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.