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Bettor Education
Tim Layden
April 03, 1995
Gambling is the dirty little secret on college campuses, where it's rampant and prospering. This SI special report reveals how easy it is for students to bet with a bookie, become consumed with wagering and get over their heads in debt
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April 03, 1995

Bettor Education

Gambling is the dirty little secret on college campuses, where it's rampant and prospering. This SI special report reveals how easy it is for students to bet with a bookie, become consumed with wagering and get over their heads in debt

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The game was long over, but the action was just beginning. J.A. Davis, a 23-year-old Texas Tech senior, fought against the flow of departing fans as he weaved down the concrete aisles of Jones Stadium in Lubbock. He was in search of a better seat to catch the closing minutes of the Red Raiders' made-for-ESPN Thursday night football game against No. 1 Nebraska on Sept. 8. It didn't matter to Davis that Tech was already soundly beaten—it trailed 35-16 with barely two minutes to play—or that Nebraska had the ball. In his world, wins and losses are secondary to point spreads and over-unders, and on this day Davis had taken the Cornhuskers, giving 25½ points.

"Two hundred bucks I had riding on that game," recalls Davis. "Lots of people had Nebraska, giving 27, 28 points—you never bet on Texas Tech—but I got in with my bookie at 25½." Nebraska, with third-and-one on the Tech 30, the clock running. Davis, dying the slow, hopeless death of a gambler longing for points from a team that doesn't need any. "I'm thinking, This can't be happening," says Davis. "I'm going to lose 200 bucks, 220 with the juice [the vigorish, the bookie's 10% commission on losing bets], and be down going into the weekend." Then a bettor's miracle occurred: The Huskers scored a trash touchdown, running back Clinton Childs going 30 yards on a sweep. Kicker Tom Sieler's vital PAT pushed the margin to 26, covering the spread and turning Davis into a winner.

Davis celebrated with a friend who also had $200 on the Cornhuskers, also spotting 25½. "I had no right to win," Davis says, "but it gave me a jump on the weekend." College football: the color, the pageantry.

Meet the Juice Generation. For them, finance isn't a major, it's knowing how to spread $1,000 in wagers over 10 Saturday college football games and stay alive for Sunday's and Monday's NFL bets with a zero balance in their checkbooks and their credit cards maxed out. Class participation is sitting in the back of a lecture hall with Vegas-style "spreadsheets" laid out, plotting a week's worth of plays on games from Seattle to Miami. Communication is a desperate call to some 1-900 tout service in search of this week's Lock of the Year. Road trip is a drive through the desert to Las Vegas or across Midwestern plains to Native American and riverboat casinos, both of which have proliferated like Home Depots.

There is nothing in the collegiate rite-of-passage handbook about gambling. There are chapters on alcohol, drugs and sex laid out against a backdrop of winking acceptance. Kids. Society has hacked out a neutral zone of sorts and allowed undergraduates to briefly frolic in it. But gambling? Who knows from gambling—in particular sports gambling—on campus? It is the dirty little secret of college life in America, rampant and thriving. "It's ubiquitous, it's popular, it's pervasive," says psychologist Michael Frank of Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J., one of a scant few academicians who has studied the phenomenon. "Wherever you go in the country, you're going to find access to a bookmaker. It's true in casinos, it's true at the General Motors plant, and it's true on college campuses all over the country."

Not only true, but pandemic, according to William (B.J.) Jahoda, 52, who for nearly 10 years ran a $20 million a year illegal sports-betting operation for Chicago mob don Ernest Rocco Infelice. Upon being told that SI was doing a story on campus gambling, Jahoda said, "It's about time. What's taken you so long?" Jahoda, who is in the U.S. marshal's witness-protection program after testifying for the government against Infelice and mob enforcer Robert Salerno, said, "You see gambling on every campus. It is an epidemic. It really has been out of control."

This outbreak might seem inconsequential, considering that legalized gambling is a growth industry in the U.S. However, most of the gambling that college students do is not legal. And just as we think of colleges as institutions of higher learning, so it is with gambling. "A kid finds a bookie on campus, he learns about gambling, he gets hooked," says Arnie Wexler, a leading consultant on problem gambling. For every college kid who derives nothing but entertainment from his betting, there is another who cons his parents to get money to cover his gambling losses, another who becomes so consumed with betting that he tosses away an education and another who plunges into gambling addiction. It is far from harmless recreation.

Hard information on campus gambling—on any gambling—is scarce. There have been only two broad, national studies of gambling. The first, in 1974, found that 61% of the U.S. population gambled. The second, a Gallup poll in '89, raised that figure to 81% and concluded that 31% of adults gambled weekly. "I'm sure that first number is at least 85% now; gambling is growing at a phenomenal rate in the United States," says Henry Lesieur, chair of the criminal justice department at Illinois State University and the acknowledged dean of American gambling researchers.

Lesieur headed a panel that in 1991 published the only widespread study of gambling among college students. The study, with surveys at six schools in five states, concluded that 23% of the students gambled at least once a week.

That's it for numbers, because gambling, on campus and off, is difficult to quantify. "It's very hard to estimate illegal gambling," says sociologist Rachel Volberg, who has overseen several more narrowly focused studies of gambling. "We get a very low rate of responses to questions about sports betting with bookmakers. The numbers are affected by that difficulty."

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