COLUMN: North Carolina’s Lawson doesn’t foul by shooting craps in Detroit casino

DETROIT — If he and his North Carolina basketball coaches and teammates can get past that small but often difficult part about perception, Ty Lawson should play craps here every available second until the Tar Heels are eliminated from the Final Four or crowned its champion.

He should roll a pair of dice off the head of the nearest NCAA official, just to jab the hypocritical organization a tad more.

Lawson is a main reason the Tar Heels are favored to be the ones cutting down nets Monday evening at Ford Field, a blur of a junior point guard whose speed and skill have carried North Carolina to its national semifinal against Villanova today. He also likes to shoot dice. He also wins at it. (Or at least claims to.)

The Tar Heels arrived here late Wednesday, and Lawson spent his time before curfew at a local casino, opening the door to questions the last few days about an issue more sensitive to the NCAA than that telephone book it calls a rules manual.

First things first. Lawson is 21, which means while he is too old to qualify as Madonna’s next conquest, he is of legal age to gamble. This is not the same as an 18-year-old freshman involved with illegal bets at the college-of-your-choice, where youth gambling quickly is becoming as big a problem on campuses as drug use.

Lawson had as much right walking into that casino as the middle-aged fan here supporting one of four teams.

The NCAA doesn’t permit anyone connected to intercollegiate athletics to gamble on pro or college sports, but it is neither illegal nor a rules violation for Lawson to wager against the outcome of one roll or a series of them or whatever other action he finds at the table.

Athletes are like everyone else. Some like to gamble. Some become addicted to it. Most don’t. Most just need the rush of a different sort of competition.

Lawson is a big boy. Whatever financial risk he accepts is on him.

“I warn against the slippery slope,” NCAA president Myles Brand said. “What a student does, plays bingo in his church, for example, while we discourage that, we prefer not to try and regulate that particular kind of activity. But it’s highly discouraged.”

(We pause here to avoid countless one-liners about college athletes and bingo, while realizing if this had anything to do with UNLV players of 1990-91, the NCAA would have called in the National Guard to handle it.)

Brand spoke in a city that includes three casinos that are banned from offering sports wagers, and yet the irony of his statements wasn’t lost on anyone.

Do you know how many NCAA institutions accept advertising and sponsorship revenue from casino and gambling organizations? Numerous.

It is believed Las Vegas wants to host the NCAA Wrestling Championships, but the NCAA doesn’t allow its sanctioned events to take place in a city with legalized sports wagering on college athletics. I am fairly certain that falls under Double-Standard No. 4,156 in the rules manual, considering the number of NCAA teams that play in venues and offer game programs plastered with casino signage.

“If we don’t want kids doing it, don’t put the Final Four in a city where the casino is 500 yards from our front door,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I mean, come on. I’m not gonna tell my guys to stay in their rooms and watch Bill Cosby reruns for four days.

“I had zero problem with Ty doing it. I went and gambled myself. When we came here this year to play Michigan State, I shot craps, lost and we won the game. At (UNR), I shot craps, lost and my team won. You have to be halfway idiot if you think I’m not going to gamble and lose money before this game.”

We live in a multimedia age best described as globally humongous. The minute North Carolina’s star player walks into a casino at a Final Four, plays craps and then openly discusses it, well, there are going to be more questions here than there are nervous souls in the workplace.

That’s where the perception part comes in, where you have to make a decision if any negative fallout is worth the bother. But if Lawson is OK with and it and Williams is OK with it and university officials are OK with it, the last opinion we need is that of the NCAA.

The organization does a wonderful job talking academic reform. It conducts countless investigations into one scandal after another. It seemingly forms a new committee each passing minute. But the NCAA is about making money first, last, always. It ceased being about amateur athletics long ago.

“I went over and won about $250,” Lawson said. “It’s probably the last time I go there before the games start … The only time I lost was in Reno. It’s the only place I lost. The other five or six times I did gamble, I won at least $500. (On Wednesday night), it was all craps. It was like within an hour.”

It was nothing.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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