Senior writer Tim Layden, who wrote a three-part series on campus gambling (SI, April 3, 1995, et seq.) reflects on the events at BC.
The best that could have come from the Boston College gambling episode (page 52) would have been a public better enlightened about the accessibility and danger of gambling to athletes. Instead, what sprang is a stream of rhetoric that says, in effect, it's naughty to bet on games if you're a player and it's very, very naughty to bet against your own team. But as long as nobody shaves points, as BC basketball players Rick Kuhn and Ernie Cobb did 17 years ago, a bullet has been dodged.
Yet the line that separates betting from fixing isn't as distinct as people believe. Once an athlete is involved in gambling, he is at risk of losing money. He will probably lose more than he can afford, and his bookmaker will look for means to make his account good. What better way than to ask the indebted athlete to fix a game?
It happens. Arnie Wexler, a recovering compulsive gambler who has been counseling bettors for more than 28 years, conducts workshops for compulsive gamblers. He's in phone contact with a college athlete who is deep in debt to a bookmaker with whom he has gambled on sporting events. The bookmaker recently asked the player to consider throwing a game to clear his losses. It is the third time in 10 years that Wexler has talked to a college athlete in this situation. None of those players admitted throwing a game, but compulsive gamblers are given to dramatically understating their excesses. "When a guy tells me what he's lost, I automatically assume it's three times that much," says Wexler.
The NCAA has rightly amended its rules to forbid athletes from any kind of gambling. But the gambling issue is over the NCAA's head and far beyond its reach. It is fabulously easy to place bets on college campuses, and unnecessary to use one's own name to do so. Professors at Cincinnati found that 25.5% of 648 Division I football and basketball players who responded to a survey said they gambled on sporting events. After meeting dozens of college gamblers and bookies, this doesn't surprise me.
Colleges can no longer say they aren't aware of the problem. They must educate athletes about the dangers of gambling, and they must frighten athletes into understanding the consequences of betting on anything. The risk of compromise is enormous: Big-time college sports have precious little integrity left, and a full-blown fixing mess could fracture what remains.
Trey Melson doesn't believe in short flings. Melson, a 45-year-old plumber, is the four-time winner of the World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' Contest, a rite of autumn in the bayside burg of Lewes in southern Delaware. Each November scores of pumpkin chunkers assemble with their homemade hurling machines in a field abutting the Lewes Church of Christ to see who can propel his or her gourd the farthest. The ingenious contraptions range from V-8-engine-powered centrifuges to three-story slingshots. Explosives are prohibited.
Melson, who is from Lewes, is a charter chunker. His jerry-built catapult won the inaugural event in 1986 with a throw of 102 feet. After victories in '87 and '88, he retired. But like many contemporary champions, he couldn't stay away. He reappeared in '94 with a revolutionary 37½-foot pneumatic cannon he named Universal Soldier. The first of his three chunks that year landed 2,508 feet away, more than 1,200 feet beyond the longest of his nearest competitor.
This year, on Nov. 3, the Soldier and two other air cannons vied for chunkin' supremacy. The most formidable-looking was the Aludium Q 36 Pumpkin Modulator used by a team from Morton, Ill. Named for the weapon of choice of Looney Tunes character Marvin the Martian, the Modulator shot squash out of a 100-foot barrel. Its best chunk touched down in the parking lot in front of the church, a record 2,710 feet from the firing line.