Parent Dana Ruggia, of Absecon, talks about the sports betting question facing the state. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Ben Fogletto

Thirty-five percent of male student-athletes and 10 percent of females said they wagered on a sporting event at least once in the past year, according to a 2003 study cited in a lawsuit filed to block New Jersey from authorizing sports betting.

Nearly 70 percent of males and 47 percent of females also reported participating in gambling behavior, with 5 percent of males and a half a percent of females categorized as problem gamblers, according to the same study that surveyed 21,000 collegiate athletes.

“If we are explaining to students why this is problematic, why it’s inappropriate, why we oppose gambling, and then the State of New Jersey is communicating exactly the opposite, saying it’s not only appropriate, we encourage gambling on intercollegiate athletic events, that certainly sends a message that’s completely the opposite,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a deposition taken in October in connection with the federal lawsuit.

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The NCAA and four professional sports leagues joined forces in suing New Jersey, saying that the state violates the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibits states from authorizing sports gambling beyond Nevada and a handful of other states where it was legal prior to the act’s enactment in 1992. The welfare of student-athletes was among one of the concerns cited with legalizing sports betting.

While some studies show that student-athletes as young as in high school gamble, several South Jersey parents said that as long as officials enact regulations to prohibit underage gamblers from placing bets, they supported the start of sports gambling in the state.

“If it brings in revenue for the state, I think it’ll be a good idea,” said Dana Ruggia, 52, of Absecon, whose son is an Ocean City High School junior basketball player. “As far as the kids are concerned, I figure they’ll have regulations and stipulations.”

Nearly 40 percent of males between 14 and 17 years old and nearly 30 percent of females of the same age group gambled at least once a month in 2010, according to the latest study from the National Annenberg Survey of Youth, which is affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.

Some local parents said they believed much of the gambling among youth likely was limited to fantasy football or March Madness sports pools.

“I don’t necessarily believe there are a lot of kids high-school age actually betting, going to what you would consider a loan shark or something,” said Steve Sullivan, 42, of Marmora, whose son, Jeremy, is an Ocean City High School basketball player. “I think it’s fantasy football, fantasy any sport. And I think that’s going to happen regardless.”

In another Annenberg study published last year, high school student-athletes were identified as contributing to the popularity of online poker between 2002 and 2008, with more than 19 percent of male athletes reporting playing cards at least once a week in 2005, according to the study.

“In fact, as the poker craze subsided, sports betting rose among high school males, partially replacing the poker craze,” researchers said in their study, which showed the probability of sports betting among youth surpassed that of poker sometime in 2006.

The study also found that high-school poker players and sports bettors reported more signs of problem gambling, such as loss of control over betting.

Kevin Witasick, 14, a freshman at Ocean City High School, said he hasn’t heard of fellow students gambling any substantial amount of money on sports.

“Maybe if it’s like a buck or some candy, but nothing major,” he said.

If New Jersey wins its suit and sports betting is allowed to proceed, Witasick said he could see some students participating.

“I don’t know if any of the freshman or sophomores would, but I think the upperclassmen might,” he said. “I won’t. I don’t bet.”

One of the concerns with exposing youth to poker, lottery games, sports betting and other gambling is that the addiction rate for adolescent gamblers is twice that of the adults, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

“It may start innocently with pools,” said Jeff Beck, assistant director of clinical services, treatment and research at the council.

The council takes a neutral stance on issues such as sports betting, although it advocates for more funds to treat problem gambling.

“The more gambling we have, more and more people are going to develop gambling problems,” Beck said.

Under New Jersey’s sports betting law, half of the $50,000 sports pool license and $50,000 renewal fee, would go toward prevention, education and treatment programs for compulsive gambling.

Beck said that money for treatment programs is necessary because the council believes that legalization of sports betting will encourage more people to gamble, in addition to those who do it illegally already.

“We suspect it does,” he said. “It certainly adds a legitimacy to it, which is a concern.”

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