Dion Lee’s betting days have long since passed.
So Lee did not want to hazard a guess as to when he finally would be able to watch the NCAA tournament without thinking of the gambling scandal that marred his Northwestern basketball career more than a decade ago.
But odds favor later over sooner.
“I still have it locked in that brain of mine,” Lee says in a recent phone. “I took my pill and swallowed it. I paid the price, even if I know I could look at every [Northwestern] roster of every sport from 1993-95 and find the names of 50 people who I know for a fact were gambling. It was everywhere.”
Lee, 32, was sentenced to one month in prison after pleading guilty in 1998 to sports bribery. He believes the gambling epidemic is greater now on college campuses than it was famously at Boston College, Northwestern, Arizona State and other campuses in the 1990s.
The NCAA worries about the same trend, expanding its presentations to teams that qualify for the Sweet 16 rather than limiting those talks to Final Four teams as in the past. Also, for the first time, the NCAA will send an observer to Las Vegas to work with bookmakers to monitor suspicious activity – a dramatic leap for an institution that was working with Capitol Hill to ban gambling on college sports just four years ago.
The fact that the three-week-long NCAA tournament will generate $3.5 billion in all forms of betting frightens people familiar with the ills of gambling as much as it excites those in the water-cooler crowd entering multiple brackets in the office pool.
“I call it the silent addiction and it’s going to be more prevalent this month than ever,” says Alexander Roseborough, the president of the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling. “I still don’t think there’s as much publicity and wareness as there should be on this problem, maybe because colleges are concerned about the effect it could have on enrollment. But it’s real and it’s growing.”
If administrators are scared now, University of Pennsylvania economist Justin Wolfers might make the hair on the backs of their necks stand straight up.
In a soon-to-be-published research paper, Wolfers contends the outcomes of as many as 500 men’s college basketball games over the past 16 years have been affected by point-shaving.
The Australian, who used to work for bookmakers in his homeland, examined the score differentials of 44,120 games from 1989 to 2005 and concluded that teams favored by more than 12 points missed covering the spread enough to raise suspicion.
He estimates that favorites covered the spread 50 percent of the time but “heavy favorites,” – teams favored by 12 or more – covered in only 48.4 percent. Wolfers considers that 1.6 percent difference significant enough to believe players were involved in manipulating the spread.
“If I’m a player, it’s impossible for me to care if I win by 11 or 13 points but it matters a lot to a gambler, and that’s the opening,” Wolfers says. “Point-shaving is so easy for the player to do.” At least three of those games Wolfers studied involved Northwestern and Lee, who in February 1995 recruited former Wildcats teammates to shave points after former Notre Dame kicker Kevin Pendergast had contacted Lee.
The Wildcats players helped arrange for Northwestern to lose by a margin bigger than the spread in games against Wisconsin and Penn State, earning Lee $4,000. The scheme fell apart when Northwestern only lost by 17 when the spread was 25, losing $20,000 for Pendergast and company.
“Eleven years later, what is the NCAA doing different – they’re still showing a video with me on it – and I know it’s still going on,” says Lee. “Why it happened then is why it’s going to happen again because as much as they say they pay attention to gambling, I don’t think in reality it gets through and kids like me slip through. There’s too much money at stake to crack down too hard, and money makes the world go ‘round.”
© 2006, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.