Colleges and online poker bans: call or fold?


It's a question facing every university in the nation as online poker has become a $12 billion industry fed largely by young gamblers.

Yes, college students such as onetime Lehigh University sophomore class President Greg Hogan are going to lose their money, and maybe even their careers, gambling online. But is it a university's duty, or even right, to stop them?

What was billed as a timely discussion of online gambling Wednesday at DeSales University quickly turned into a debate pitting personal freedom against public harm.

By the end of the 90-minute forum, officials at the Center Valley campus were considering whether to block all university computers from allowing access to online gambling sites ? and students were vowing to fight it if they do.

''So, should we crack down? Should we block all of your computers from accessing gambling sites?'' asked the forum moderator, the Rev. Thomas F. Daily, playing devil's advocate after hearing how Hogan is serving 22 months to 10 years in state prison for robbing a bank to pay his gambling debt.

Standing in the back of the room, Doug Griffin, DeSales' vice president of technology, happened to be the first to answer.

''No one has asked me to block gambling sites,'' Griffin said. ''But I have a feeling that will change by Monday.''

Not if students like junior Vince Coglianese have anything to say about it. Coglianese was class president as a freshman and spent a lot of time playing online poker, though he says he played only the ''play'' money practice sites.

But his argument had little to do with gambling.

''The college atmosphere is one of individual freedom and intellectual diversity, a meeting place for the mind,'' Coglianese said. ''Blocking any site, whether it be gambling, pornography or some other illicit site, should not be necessary. Students should be allowed to become adults. If they try to block our computers, I will oppose it vigorously.''

Though the forum, held by DeSales' Salesian Center for Faith and Culture, was held to foster discussion on both sides, the panel was decidedly anti-gambling.

DeSales economics professor Amy Scott explained why online gambling is risky and unregulated, and U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District, said he's sponsoring legislation to stop it. The most emotional plea came from Greg Hogan Sr., who noted that as he spoke, his son who had so much promise sits in a cell in Graterford State Prison.

''I don't like placing limits on people, either,'' Hogan said. ''But colleges don't place beer taps in dorms and simply place a sign on them saying 'No one under 21 allowed.'''

Hogan's son, Greg Jr., was class president and played cello in the university orchestra when he became addicted to online gambling. The $8,000 debt from his compulsion led him to rob an Allentown bank in December.

Internet gambling is exploding, says the American Gaming Association, and college students are a primary reason. What was a $3 billion-a-year business in 2001 had revenues of $12 billion last year, and that is projected to increase to nearly $25 billion by 2010. And unlike casino gambling, where the patrons are largely people older than 60, online gamblers are predominantly men in their 20s.

Internationally, online gaming has begun to grow its market by tapping into youths playing through their cell phones. In France, according to the International Gaming & Wagering Business Journal, the largest group of people gambling by cell phone is 13- to 17-year-olds.

DeSales Dean of Students Linda Zerbe said there almost certainly will be immediate discussion about whether to block university computers.

When Gary Muth of Whitehall Township heard that, the issue cut right back to personal freedom. ''It's my money,'' he said. ''Shouldn't I be able to spend it the way I want?''

His plea also shows just how far the influence of the gaming industry reaches. Though the 24-year-old looked like just another of the 170 DeSales students at the forum, he was actually a member of the Poker Players Alliance, a national organization trying to get online poker legalized.

School officials may be considering new restrictions, but students can take comfort that they have the right man on their side.

''I'm not in favor of prohibition for these type things,'' the DeSales president, the Rev. Bernard F. O'Connor, said after the forum. ''We'll discuss it, and if everyone else thinks differently, I'll listen. But I know where I stand.''

And with that, the odds swung decidedly in favor of the students.