07/20/2005 11:00PM

Old friend or two-faced acquaintance?


It appears the NCAA is trying to renew an old friendship with the Nevada sports books after having a falling out. This past week, a story came out of the NCAA's management council in Los Angeles that the NCAA is going to reach out to the books in order to help in monitoring betting patterns on college sports.

For those not up on the history, here's a quick synopsis: In the early 1990's, Bill Saum, the NCAA's director of agents, gambling, and amateurism, met with several sports book directors here, and they agreed to work with each other. In 1994, the sports books here helped notify the NCAA of irregular betting patterns on Arizona St. men's basketball games in a well-documented point-shaving scandal. In the late 1990's, during the congressional-sponsored National Gambling Impact Study, Saum testified that he had no problem with sports betting in Nevada but didn't want it to spread. In 2001, however, when Sen. John McCain introduced the Amateur Sports Integrity Act, the NCAA turned its back on the Nevada sports books and called for a betting ban on college sports, with Saum being the point-man.

The Nevada sports books won that fight after the bill didn't make it to the Senate floor, but it certainly severed the friendship between the two entities. The part that particularly upset the Nevada contingent was that the NCAA was making the legal books here out to be a scapegoat, even though the books felt they were acting as a watchdog for the colleges.

The misinformation that was circulating at the time - mostly by politicians who didn't know what they were talking about - implied that Vegas bookmakers were fixing games. The truth is that the biggest victims of a fix are the bookmakers themselves. They want a game that has a 50-50 chance of winning so they can keep their vig - a fixed game is the last thing books want.

At the time, the NCAA made its point that all of the major gambling scandals have taken place in Nevada, but the sports books here countered that the scandals started on college campuses and weren't detected until they got to Nevada. But the NCAA didn't budge in its stance, and it's been four years of a fractured friendship.

Now the NCAA is calling again, wanting to renew acquaintances.

This change of pace is apparently coming about in the aftermath of an NCAA study released last year, which showed that 35 percent of male athletes and 10 percent of female athletes had gambled on college sports during the previous year. Now, I don't have the study in front of me, but I'm willing to bet that, since you have to be 21 to place a bet in Nevada and since most college athletes are under 21, few of those bets were placed legally here.

College athletes participating in games and betting on them is a concern and something the NCAA should rightfully be following. But as mentioned ad nauseam in 2001, the problem is not here. Yes, this is where scandals are likely to be uncovered because of the regulatory controls that Nevada has in place, but by focusing on the end of the line, the NCAA is missing out on the source - its own campuses.

Truth be told, Las Vegas isn't the center of the sports-betting universe anymore. If someone is fixing a game nowadays, they could get down a lot more money a lot more inconspicuously by betting offshore. But obviously the NCAA doesn't want to deal with companies in foreign countries and in a gray legal area.

So, Nevada's sports book directors are welcoming back the NCAA, if not with open arms, then at least with open minds and seeing this as a positive step.

"I think the NCAA is on the right page when they say they want to work with us, because we do really have the same goal," said MGM Mirage sports book director Robert Walker. "There is nothing worse than finding out you are on the wrong end of a scandal."

"As an old-timer, I have a long memory," said Art Manteris, sports book director for the Station Casinos. "It is a positive signal if the NCAA is in fact reaching out to the industry. In the past, there were huge misconceptions about our industry. The more our industry gets recognized outside our state's borders for being a highly regulated environment the better."

It'll be interesting to see how this all shakes out, if both sides can let bygone be bygones and work together again.

Is this a softening of the NCAA's position and a call for a truce in which the organization will work with the sports books here for the common good, or will it use the books for its own purposes and then stab sports books in the back the next time someone on Capitol Hill calls for a ban on college sports betting?

Only time will tell if the friendship lasts.