12/12/2002 1:00AM

Speak up to keep college sports betting rights


This is the first Saturday in four months without a college football game, so while bettors are handicapping the upcoming bowl games, they should consider that this could possibly be the last year that betting on those games will be legal in Nevada.

Yes, it's time to talk again about the U.S. Senate's proposed college betting ban, the legislation that wouldn't die.

Some background:

* The National Gambling Impact Study Commission first proposed a college betting ban in its report released in 1999.

* That led to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) drafting his Amateur Sports Integrity Act. McCain, after his failed presidential bid in 2000, has taken up a number of causes, including campaign finance reform, and has been very successful in pushing through legislation. McCain targeted the sports books in Nevada (the only place in the country where college sports betting is legal), saying their existence provided a loophole for game-fixers and illegal bookmakers to make bets. He also said college sports betting provided an environment in which it was unclear to youngsters that betting is illegal outside Nevada.

* Nevada senators Harry Reid and John Ensign and representative Shelley Berkeley, with the help of the American Gaming Association, the casino industry's top lobbyist, argued that Nevada's regulations have helped uncover recent point-shaving scandals that wouldn't have been discovered otherwise. They said a ban in Nevada would not stop illegal betting elsewhere, and that the NCAA - a chief supporter of the bill - needed to do a better job of policing its own campuses.

* The Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by McCain, debated the betting ban bill in April of 2001. McCain thought it would be a slam-dunk, but the bill ended in a tie vote. Just like in other sports, ties go to the offensive side, but it was clear the bill had lost its support and momentum.

* James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican party in May 2001 to become an Independent, giving Democrats control of the Senate. As a result, Reid became Majority Whip - which put him in position to control a lot of the legislation that came up for debate on the Senate floor - and McCain lost his committee chairmanship.

* The events of Sept. 11 also gave the Senate much more pressing matters to concentrate on and the college betting ban bill never made it to the floor. Nevada sports books and bettors have returned to their normal ways and haven't worried about it for the past year.

But now times have changed.

In last month's mid-term elections, the Republicans won enough seats to take control of the Senate. Reid will see his powers decreased as Minority Whip, and McCain will regain chairmanship of the Commerce Committee in January.

McCain has already released his priority list for the Commerce Committee and the college betting ban bill is among his New Year's resolutions.

Everyone who opposes this legislation will have to be just as aggressive this time around, and probably even more so since McCain will probably be motivated to redeem himself for his previous setback.

McCain also will pick up the support of Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has pushed similar legislation in the House of Representatives but was elected to a Senate seat last month. The good news is that Graham's move along with the retirement of Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) give Berkeley a better chance of gaining support in the House.

So, Nevada's lawmakers are obviously on board. If you live in another state and think sports betting should remain legal in Nevada (and if you think it should be made legal everywhere), you should show your support because it never will be legalized nationwide if it's banned in Nevada. It's time to make your voice heard, before it's too late.

Send a letter or greeting card to your Congressmen, telling them: you don't support the college betting ban; that the government shouldn't be telling people what to do with their entertainment dollars; that money will just move to offshore books or illegal bookmakers; and that a study of betting on college campuses would be a more effective way of stopping illegal sports betting.

If Congressmen from other states don't hear from their constituents, they're going to go with the politically safe option when they hear betting ban supporters' rhetoric that "betting on kids is wrong" and "this helps take away a money laundering option for criminals."

With Congress in its holiday recess, it's easy to get complacent about this issue, but this is the time when the groundwork has to be laid. If we wait until McCain gets the ball rolling, it could be too late to stop his momentum.

The biggest fear is that this bill will pass and everyone will be sitting around saying, "What could we have done?"