03/13/2003 12:00AM

Wagering athletes walk fine line

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It's old news really, but the March 17 issue of Sports Illustrated has an item on hockey star Jaromir Jagr's gambling woes with an offshore sports book.

The account reportedly was opened in 1997 at caribsports.com, which extended Jagr a line of credit. Jagr is the NHL's highest-paid player, currently in the second year of a seven-year, $78-million guaranteed contract, so it was assumed the Czechoslovakian native was good for it.

Jagr, who is said to like football betting the most, started well, even collecting some winnings. However, his luck ran out and his debt grew in excess of $500,000. CaribSports owner William Caesar contacted Jagr and his lawyers to settle the account. The lawyers claimed that a friend of Jagr's had accessed the account and run up the debt. Caesar agreed to discount the debt to $450,000 and Jagr proposed a payment schedule in which he would make nine monthly payments of $37,500 and one lump-sum of $112,500. The agreement was dated June 12, 2000.

But the Czech bounced.

The payments stopped, and last April the story was leaked to Las Vegas-based publisher/writer Buzz Daly, who covers the offshore industry as well as anyone (buzzdaly.com). The story was all the rage on Internet posting forums, but then Jagr settled up with Caesar and the story went away.

Until now.

Even though it's old news, it's still relevant for those in the sports and sport betting worlds (which are one and the same).

The biggest concern when the Jagr story broke last year was whether he bet on the NHL. Fortunately, caribsports.com was smart enough to make sure Jagr's account was set up so that NHL lines were not accessible. Las Vegas sports books are also diligent when it comes to keeping athletes from making bets on the sports in which they play.

Celebrities and athletes are very important to casinos. The local gossip columns are filled with sightings seven days a week. Familiar faces in the casinos include Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Marshall Faulk, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Piazza, Jason Giambi, Phil Mickelson, Mike Tyson, and Shaquille O'Neal. Not all of them gamble, but the electricity quotient goes up when a star athlete walks through on the way to a VIP party or nightclub.

The celebrities that gamble can add a lot more than glamor to a casino - like another hotel tower. Today's athletes have a lot of disposable income, and the casinos love getting a shot at that.

Woods and Jordan have been known to play $10,000 a hand in blackjack. Barkley is a big gambler, too. I once played blackjack with Frank Thomas at Mandalay Bay. For the record, we were both playing $25 a hand. The hotel probably bought a candlestick or two with our donations.

The sports books are understandably tight-lipped about the betting habits of their celebrity clientele. It's a confidentiality issue. Celebrities won't return and bet loads of money if they fear their private affairs are being leaked to the press.

There hasn't been a problem with an athlete betting on his or her own sport in Las Vegas. One bookmaker said that 99.99 percent of athletes are aware that it can jeopardize their careers if they slip up one time. And some books instruct their ticket writers to call for a supervisor to come over and give a friendly reminder to athletes on which sports they will be allowed to place a wager.

If a player (or coach) were to place a bet, casinos are required to file a "Suspicious Activities Report" with the Treasury Department.

In addition, on the college level, UNLV holds classes with its athletes every year to make sure they know not to be seen anywhere near a casino. And visiting teams get the same lecture.

So the controls are in place, but they still can't guarantee a controversy-free environment.

The most famous bettor seen in Las Vegas casinos is, of course, Pete Rose. The fact that Jagr might have bet on his own sport is also relevant to those who are following the all-time hit leader's bid for reinstatement. It made national news last month that Rose had been spotted at the Palms, Bellagio, and Caesars Palace. Even though he wasn't doing anything illegal (Rose likes to bet the horses), a lot of people criticized him for a lack of judgment, that he would be within sight of the sports betting boards.

The huge sigh of relief you heard earlier this month was the casino management and public relations departments at those hotels when ESPN and other media outlets said they had major-league sources saying that said Rose's patronage of Las Vegas casinos would not be grounds for not reinstating him.

Again, Rose did nothing wrong in this case and the casinos were faultless, but if MLB commissioner Bud Selig or some major league spokesman came out and said that that was the reason for Rose continuing to be banished from the game, the public wouldn't view it the same way. Such an announcement would generate negative publicity for Rose and the casinos.

Sports and betting are intertwined in our country, and it isn't any more true than in the legal sports books in Nevada. But when it comes to athletes visiting casinos, it's important that never the twain shall meet.