The Harvard School of Medicine recently examined 120 gambling studies in the United States and Canada and found that 6 percent of teenagers under 18 have serious gambling problems and that these young people are more likely to miss school and abuse alcohol and other drugs.
People who begin gambling at an early age also run higher risks of becoming problem gamblers, according to a report last year from the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.The fact that gambling, both the legal and illegal variety, is a social problem in this nation is not a new revelation.
That's why I am surprised at the response to the legislation introduced in Congress this year that would make it illegal to bet on college sports events. The surprise is that there has been little reaction, except predictable blasts against it from the Las Vegas-based gaming industry.
The NCAA and the U.S. Olympic Committee support the High School and College Gambling Prohibition Act that would outlaw all betting on high school, college and Olympic sports. The sponsors are Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The NCAA's position is that banning college sports gambling would dispose of an avenue for point-shavers to spread out their money. It would deal a blow to the legitimacy of sports handicappers. They also hope it will sensitize young people to the illegality of betting on college sports and limit the number of people who are introduced to sports gambling.
"Foul," cried the gaming industry and its supporters. Why doesn't the NCAA fix its other problems, they asked. The NCAA and member institutions, they argue, rake in billions of dollars from football and basketball while some of the student-athletes from poor economic backgrounds struggle to get by. That leads to temptation and to the increase in point-shaving scandals, they say. Another argument is that the legislation would merely drive collegiate sports gambling underground and make it even harder to regulate.
A counter-bill has been introduced by Sen. Henry Reid, D-Nev., to appoint a panel from the Department of Justice to "study" illegal sports wagering and its impact on colleges.
The fact that college sport has well-publicized problems should not detract from the significance of what the NCAA is trying to do here.
No, the legislation will not end all gambling on college sports. There always has been a certain level of illegal gambling, and only a repeal of the laws of human nature will end that.
The NCAA-sponsored bill will, however, signal strongly that gambling on amateur sports events is not acceptable. And where is that signal now? Gambling on college sports events is legal only in Nevada. But if it's OK in Nevada, many people reason, it should be OK everywhere. Legal sports wagering fuels a much larger amount of illegal sports betting, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission found.
Unfortunately, gambling on college sports is socially acceptable in America. Every president of a university with a Division I sports program fears that point-shaving cases such as those at Arizona State, Boston College and Northwestern could happen on their campuses, too.
If we send signals that there's nothing wrong with gambling on amateur athletics, then it stands to reason that more people will do it.
The social costs of gambling have been well-documented in study after study. If universities are to be serious about educating students for lives of civic engagement, they should stand up for this small progressive move.
Remember, if 6 percent of teenagers have gambling problems, then some of them soon will be coming to a campus near you, looking for some action. They don't need our encouragement.
Daniel Ritchie is chancellor of the University of Denver.