04/04/2007 11:00PM

NCAA may be missing the point

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LAS VEGAS - Amid all the stories this past week on the Final Four, the opening of the baseball season, and the Masters, you might have missed the one about an emerging point-shaving scandal at the University of Toledo.

Last Friday, running back Harvey "Scooter" McDougle Jr. was arrested by the FBI and taken to federal court, where he was charged with taking cash and other gifts to influence the outcome of Rockets football games for a Michigan gambler named Ghazi "Gary" Manni. He is also accused of recruiting other Toledo athletes to take part in the activities, and the investigation is said to be looking at men's basketball games as well.

Not many specific details have come out, but more should be known when McDougle is arraigned on April 20. He could face five years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

There has been plenty of speculation about this case in Las Vegas. As far back as 2004, there were rumblings in the sports betting community here that something was fishy with some games in the Mid-American Conference, where Toledo plays. Those games saw a lot of huge line moves, with the money usually being on the winning side, so it was most often attributed to sharp bettors getting the best of the bookmakers. The word "fix" was bandied about, but there was never any proof. Instead, the sports books here countered by lowering betting limits on MAC games, and some went as far as to keep the games off the board until late in the week when the lines had settled.

A Monday article on ESPN.com quoted Kenny White, chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, as saying he told the Nevada Gaming Commission and the NCAA about suspicious wagering activity on MAC games in the summer of 2005. White was reached via cell phone while on vacation Thursday, but declined to comment further.

On Thursday, the NCAA disputed that report when Erik Christianson, director of public and media relations for the NCAA, told the Toledo Blade, "The NCAA was not informed 18 months ago about sports-wagering suspicions related to the University of Toledo."

According to the criminal complaint against McDougle, the FBI first linked Manni with McDougle by tapping Manni's phone in November 2005. The complaint said the scheme involved Manni taking McDougle and other accomplices to dine and gamble at the Greektown Casino in Detroit, where Manni asked the players if they thought they would be able to cover the spread in certain games.

That's where the story gets fuzzy, as the FBI's complaint and media reports don't go into many specific details, and the ones that are provided are a little sketchy. In fact, one game mentioned is the 2005 GMAC Bowl when Toledo was a 3-point favorite over UTEP. The FBI complaint says that McDougle assured Manni in a December 2005 call that the Rockets would cover the spread and asked Manni to make a $2,000 bet for him on the game. McDougle, who was injured most of that season, didn't play, and Toledo won 45-13.

That's where this case might fall apart, because that's not "point shaving," which usually involves a team throwing a game or intentionally winning by less than the point spread. Of course, the FBI might be holding its best cards closer to its vest. If not, it would be well-advised to look at an Oct. 23, 2004, game when Toledo, after being bet from a 24-point favorite down to 21 1/2 vs. Central Michigan, won by only 27-22, and Sept. 17, 2005, when Toledo opened as a 29 1/2-point favorite vs. Temple and the line got bet down to 24 1/2 before Toledo conveniently won 42-17.

Making matters more complicated for investigators is that the oddsmakers do a pretty good job of handicapping the games, so just the fact that a game lands around the point spread doesn't prove it's fixed.

While bet takers here and offshore, as well as illegal bookmakers everywhere, will be following this case closely, so will Sen. John McCain. In 2001, he unsuccessfully tried to ban college sports betting in the state of Nevada. His stance was that if it's made illegal in Nevada, then there won't be a mixed message sent to the youth of America, illegal bookies won't have a place to lay off their big bets, and the problem will somehow go away.

His bill was defeated at that time, and he has conceded in many interviews since then that he probably couldn't get the support to get it passed. However, he has stated that he would revive the bill if another betting scandal happens, "and it will happen," he predicted.

He was right on that account, but it's hard to know how big this scandal will be.

Even if it does grow, Nevada's stance all along has been that illegal gambling on college campuses is a much bigger problem than legal sports betting, and that illegal gambling will increase if the one legal outlet is eliminated. Nevada legislators also argued in 2001 that the state's sports books help uncover scandals that might otherwise go undetected.

That's what makes the debate all the more interesting: Did White inform the NCAA about betting irregularities, and did the NCAA do anything about it?

In a column on July 23, 2005, I wrote that the NCAA was claiming it was going to work with Nevada sports books to monitor betting patterns on games. That was around the time White claimed he told the NCAA his concerns.

As it turned out, the NCAA never followed through with further opening up its lines of communication with the sports books here, but maybe it should have been listening.