05/13/2004 11:00PM

NCAA anti-gambling study a misguided effort

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The NCAA released a report Wednesday entitled the "2003 National Study on Collegiate Sports Wagering and Associated Health Risks."

"The scope of sports wagering among intercollegiate student-athletes is startling and disturbing," NCAA president Myles Brand said in the report. "Sports wagering is a double threat, because it harms the well-being of student-athletes and the integrity of college sports."

This revelation reminds me of the famous scene from the movie Casablanca, when Rick is told by Captain Renault that he is closing down Rick's Caf? American because, he hisses, "I'm shocked - shocked - to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Here are some numbers taken from the NCAA study:

* More than 21,000 NCAA student-athletes were surveyed confidentially for the study.

* Thirty-five percent of male student-athletes said they bet on sports compared with 10 percent of females.

* Fully 2.3 percent of Division I football players and 2.1 percent of men's basketball players said they were asked to affect the outcome of a game because of a gambling debt.

* The highest proportion of male student-athletes that gambled on sports were in golf (48.6 percent) and ice hockey (48.4 percent).

On Thursday, sports talk show host Jim Rome quoted some of the statistics from the NCAA study, and then said sarcastically, "What a shock."

The survey contains certain questions that skew the percentages. For example, these activities are considered "betting on sports" if money changed hands among the players: card games (such as poker), board games, pool, darts, bowling, and lottery tickets.

Also, the timing of the release by the NCAA happened to precede by one day a press conference held by House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisc.). The chairman directed the House Judiciary committee's panel on the Constitution to "hold hearings on the oversight and management practices of the NCAA."

Thus, a potentially damning charge by a congressional committee was obscured by the sensational nature of the NCAA sports gambling study.

Ivan Maisel, on espn.com, wrote that Bill Saum, the NCAA director of agent and gambling activities, "plans to use the study as a foundation from which to launch a multi-front assault on gambling . . . changes in public policy and legislation are goals."

What that means to me is that Nevada politicians and casino sports book operators better polish up their briefs from the past few years. It is inevitable that the NCAA will revisit the fight to ban betting on college sports in Nevada.

With as many problems as the NCAA is facing now with the illicit recruiting of high school players, over-commercialism, poor graduation rates, drug and steroid use, inappropriate behavior by coaches, players, and fans, among other things, it is incredible to me that sports gambling remains at the top of its hit list.

Maybe the NCAA should rethink a quote said by fictional President Jed Bartlet on the TV show "The West Wing," when he tells his staff that it's important to fight the fights that you believe are right, not just the fights you think you can win.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.