Anti-Gambling Bill

WASHINGTON – A U.S. Senate bill intended to stop wagering on amateur sports would require colleges and universities to monitor student Internet use for illegal gambling transactions and would withhold federal education funding from schools that failed to do so.

Earlier this month, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the Amateur Sports Integrity Act, a bill introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would make betting on high school, college or Olympic sports illegal. The bill is aimed squarely at Nevada, the only state where gambling on amateur sports is still legal, albeit only for adults at least 21 years of age who are physically located in the state.

Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, who opposes the bill, added the monitoring language. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., added an amendment requiring certain colleges to submit annual reports on illegal gambling activity on their campuses to the federal government. Another Breaux amendment would prevent financial institutions, such as credit card companies, from knowingly collecting on debts racked up through unlawful Internet gambling.

“The Internet monitoring amendment would set a terrible precedent, creating a federal mandate to force universities to spy on students and other members of the university community,” says Ari Schwartz, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology. “This should frighten not only students, professors and staff of universities, but any organization that receives any kind of federal funding.”

The prospects for a new federal online privacy law, which once seemed a virtual certainty for the 107th Congress, have grown murkier with the U.S. economic downturn. It’s unlikely but not impossible that Ensign’s amendment would stay attached to the gambling bill for a Senate floor vote. Nevertheless, the fact that such an invasive mandate cleared McCain’s committee, a key gateway for any new online privacy law, under any conditions could be a troubling sign.

The bill pits the gambling industry against amateur sports organizations, such as the nonprofit National Collegiate Athletic Association. For its part, the gambling industry anted up more than $10 million in political donations in the latest election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ensign was the top recipient of such funds, raking in almost $368,000, according to the center.

McCain still faces stiff opposition to a Senate floor vote on the bill. But Senate Commerce Committee spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi said McCain “reserves all options” and feels that “colleges and universities and coaches will prevail over gambling special interest money.” Pialorsi said both Ensign and Breaux have agreed to drop their amendments if they are challenged under Senate rules.

Opponents of McCain’s bill, such as the American Gaming Association, say that outlawing amateur sports betting in Nevada would do nothing to stop the massive existing problem of illegal gambling, including online wagering, on and off college campuses across the country. Supporters say that closing the “Las Vegas loophole” would eliminate a conduit for illegal gambling and thus go a long way toward stemming the tide. The NCAA says sports gambling corrupts athletics and leads to cheating scandals.