Sports & Entertainment

Sports gambling and governing with a moral compass

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In 1992, Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a law banning sports betting everywhere in the United States except the four states that already had some form of it (Deleware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon).

{mosads}Three weeks ago, New Jersey’s four-year, multimillion-dollar effort to legalize sports betting was denied when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld PASPA and rejected the state’s plan to allow casinos and racetracks to offer sports betting. Then last week, Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration — which rarely plays the sympathetic figure, but somehow does in this case — filed a motion for the Third Circuit’s full 23-judge panel to rehear the case.

New Jersey has been challenged every step of the way by the NCAA and four professional sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL — who argue, with nauseating sanctimony considering what’s under the rug of all five of these organizations, that allowing states to legalize sports betting would irreparably compromise the integrity of their leagues.

Who are we kidding?

Prohibition was an early “who are we kidding?” moment for our country, representing, perhaps, the biggest legislative debacle in American history. In the early 20th century, religious and social groups lobbied to rid “demon” liquor from the masses. Intended, in theory, to abate the temptation of liquor, Prohibition in practice merely ended up turning upstanding citizens into criminals. I’m talking about you, Jay Gatsby!

By ratifying a constitutional amendment banning the production and distribution of liquor in 1920, the government unintentionally inspired bathtub gin, those pesky speakeasys and extravagant parties funded by subversive, organized criminal operations that sold grain alcohol out of side-street drug stores (damn you, Gatsby!) Alcohol became more desirable and fashionable. Unable to reconcile the hypocrisy between federal law and alcohol’s pervasive use, as well as the enterprising potential of taxing its use, Prohibition was ultimately repealed 13 years later. Cheers!

And yet here we go again, as the U.S. government wastes its time fighting the legalization of sports gambling. Same moral premise, different vice. The government gets lobbied to pass these paternalistic laws forbidding one “depravity” or another, with no legitimate desire or resolve to uphold them. How many marijuana dispensaries did you see on your last trip to Colorado? How many DraftKings commercials did you watch this weekend? How many NCAA brackets did you fill out last March?

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have lotteries and all states except Utah and Hawaii have commercial gambling in some form. In 2015 alone, six states have introduced sports betting bills. Politicians, frightened by the influence the professional sports leagues and the NCAA wield, have fought blindly alongside these organizations to block the legalization of sports gambling. The hypocrisy from all of them is laughable. At the front door, they oppose the legalization of gambling because of its nefarious moral element, while at the back door they wink and condone fantasy sports, office pools and point spreads, which serve as fortuitous promotion for their respective organizations.

The fundamental problem with Prohibition was not its moral pretense, nor the debate therein. Prohibition’s biggest problem was that it made the criminals rich. People will always find a way to appease their vices. The action will go down whether it is legal or not.

“Illegal sports betting is reaching new heights of popularity in America,” Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA), said in a statement last week. “It’s clear that a federal ban on traditional sports betting outside of Nevada is failing.” In its release, the AGA estimates that Americans will wager $95 billion on NFL and college football this season, $93 billion of which will be wagered illegally. We have essentially created the world’s largest black market for sports betting. Global gaming research company GamblingCompliance projects that a nationwide, legal sports gambling market would produce upwards of $12 billion in revenue. The tax windfall would be substantial.

The apprehension that legalizing sports gambling would encourage corruption is, on its face, counterintuitive. Regulated betting actually makes it easier to root out crimes like point shaving. Two of the biggest college point-shaving scandals in the last 20 years — one involving Arizona State University basketball players and the other involving a University of Toledo football player — were uncovered when regulated Las Vegas sports books noticed betting irregularities on certain games and reported it to authorities.

Similar to alcoholism, gambling addiction possesses individuals who gamble beyond means and risk prosperity. Similar to Prohibition, however, the argument to illegalize gambling in order to protect these generally atypical, albeit desperate, cases seems more like governing with a moral compass. Regulate it, tax it, but allow us to determine the corruptive impact these things have on our life. We’re going to do it anyway, old sport!

Spatola is a West Point graduate and former captain in the U.S. Army. He currently serves as a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports and SiriusXM radio.

Tags Chris Christie Gambling MLB NBA NCAA New Jersey NFL NHL PASPA Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act Prohibition sports gambling
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