The Big Shame
By Chris Jenkins
Bill Saum, the NCAA's top cop, calls student-athlete gambling "a time bomb ready to explode," and it's easy to see why. When the sanctity of sports rests in the hands of rockheads like Brian Ballarini, there's plenty of cause for concern.
If you don't know who Ballarini is, you should, because people like him threaten the very foundation of the sports we love. A former Northwestern football player, Ballarini became a bookie after an injury ended his career. And in time, he got pretty good at it. At one point, he was taking bets from as many as 15 Northwestern student athletes, including basketball player Dion Lee. When Lee ran up debts he couldn't pay, authorities say Ballarini and an associate threatened to beat the money out of him. So began the Northwestern point-shaving scandal.
Ballarini was busted, and as part of his plea-bargain agreement, he will spend the next five years speaking to groups of student athletes across the country. But after hearing him last week in Chicago, I'm not so sure that's a good idea. Organizers of DePaul University's seminar on campus sports gambling hoped that by hearing Ballarini's story, school administrators might learn ways to identify and help problem gamblers. Instead, they got a lesson in how deep the roots of denial can reach.
After stoically reading a prepared statement expressing some remorse for his actions, Ballarini deviated from the script to blast Northwestern athletic director Rick Taylor and head football coach Gary Barnett. "Why was it you singled me out when you knew there were others who should have followed me out the door?" he asked. "There were a half-dozen to one dozen players with a gambling problem. Was it because I was hurt and no longer useful to the athletic program? You did nothing to help us, never gave us counseling or anything." Another victim of the system, I suppose.
But wait, Brian. When you were asked about your gambling activities during the school's internal investigation, didn't you deny everything? Didn't you continue to take bets, even after getting a house call from an FBI agent? And if you needed counseling so badly, why haven't you gotten any on your own?
"I'm cured," he said, eliciting muffled laughs from what was otherwise an exceptionally polite crowd.
When laying down a bet is easier for college students than ordering a pizza, it's no wonder gambling has become a chronic problem.
Also speaking to student athletes as part of their penance are Lee and Kevin Pendergast, who ran up heavy gambling debts after finishing his career as a kicker at Notre Dame and became a central figure in the scandal when he needed a "sure thing" to get out of the hole. What Lee and Pendergast did was worse -- Pendergast came to Lee with the offer to shave points for money in games against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan late in the 1994-95 season, and Lee recruited two teammates to help him carry out the scheme -- but the message they deliver to student athletes is more valuable. Both have shown remorse for what they've done, and both admit to needing help with their gambling problems. In an emotional speech at the conclusion of the seminar, Taylor accepted Lee's apology. The two even embraced.
That's encouraging, but it doesn't make the battle any easier.
Gambling is more prevalent on college campuses today than it ever was; for most students, laying down a sports bet is easier than ordering a pizza (after all, you have to pay the pizza guy up front). And the NCAA has surveys that say at least 25 percent of its student athletes engage in some form of gambling. So we shouldn't be surprised that law-enforcement officials have uncovered more campus gambling scandals in the latter half of this decade than they had in the previous 40 years.
So many things make sports unattractive these days: domestic violence, franchise relocation, labor disputes, publicly funded stadiums, PSLs, drug abuse, free agency . . . the list goes on. But even faced with all that, there was one thing we could count on: On the field, it was real, and that alone gave it meaning. You might not have liked a lot of people in the sports world. But it didn't matter because they never transcended the games they played.
But by the very nature of their actions, point-shavers and the people who influence them become bigger than the game. It's not fair. If Michael Jordan can't be bigger than the game, it's ridiculous to think Ballarini, Lee or Pendergast could be. But college is about freedom, and we can't lock down all our student athletes like criminals.
Maybe as unpaid, exploited entertainers making money for everybody but themselves, many college athletes don't feel any burden of responsibility for upholding the integrity of the games they play. And lectures from coaches and administrators aren't going to inspire those feelings. But when faced with the choice of gambling or not, they need to think about the shame they could cause themselves, their teammates and their families. We can learn something from buffoons like Ballarini after all.
Source: The Sporting News, October 12, 1998
When involved in a sports gambling scandal, a student-athlete pays for it in more ways than they could have ever imagined. A loss of freedom...a loss of eligibility...a loss of respect...a lost chance at a professional career. You have spent a lifetime working to get to where you are today. Don't risk losing it.
Places for Assistance:
- Gamblers Anonymous:
- Write to: Gamblers Anonymous I.S.O., P.O. Box 17173, Los Angeles, CA 90017
Call: National Headquarters: (213) 386-8789
Indianapolis Hotline: (317) 382-4950
- IU Athletic Department, Compliance Office:
- Assembly Hall (Ian Rickerby, 856-6074)
- IU Health Center:
- Call: 855-4011
Counseling Services: 855-5711
- Arnie Wexler:
Mr. Wexler is a recovering compulsive gambler. He encourages calls from any students or athletes who believe that gambling is controlling their lives.