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The air ball in NBA's call for sports gambling

The NBA commissioner wants Congress to allow sports gambling. The NHL commissioner does not. In this contest, merit-based sports must win, not the belief in luck.

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    Adam Silver, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association, watches a Houston-Utah game.
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Most sports fans watch a game to enjoy the natural talent of players as well as the teamwork. Sport is a contest of inherent merit, a glorification of what we are given, a call to excel. Team loyalty rests on a hope of victory through excellence. Even in fantasy sports or the fake sport of “pro” wrestling, an illusion of merit remains. 

Now take that sports rulebook and apply it to a new and different contest, one among leaders of American professional sports over whether to endorse a game of luck into their merit-based games.

Last week, Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), called for Congress to legalize gambling on pro sports. Specifically, in a New York Times opinion article, he sought to overturn the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibits almost all of the states from allowing gambling on sports (Nevada being the big exception). 

It would be better to bring underground gambling to the surface and regulate it, Mr. Silver argued, than to leave it hidden. (He didn’t address whether the NBA would also get a cut of that gambling revenue.)

Most other commissioners of pro sports have remained silent to Silver’s plea. After all, the NFL, NHL, MLB, the NCAA – and even the NBA – have gone to federal court to stop New Jersey from legalizing sports betting. Up to now, they have worried about protecting the integrity of players, coaches, and referees from the potential corruption of bribing that might come with a major expansion of sports gambling. 

But Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, did speak out last week. And he framed the issue very well in a CNN interview: “Do you want people at football and basketball games rooting for the spread or rooting for their favorite team?” 

Sports team owners, including colleges and universities, constantly try to understand the motivations of fans – in order to keep them coming back. A whole army of marketing experts backs them up with the latest research. Scholars of sports have even devised a “Motivation Scale for Sport Consumption.” It gauges why people enjoy certain sporting events. 

These experts still are not sure what drives fans. They talk of the vicarious thrill of achievement, or BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory). They probe why fans remain loyal to losing teams, looking at CORFing (Cutting Off Reflected Failure.) They put numbers to motivations, such as the social aspects of watching a game, the aesthetic qualities of plays, family legacy, escapism, or the sheer appreciation of skill.

So much of the fervor of sports fans began in their youth, making it difficult to detect motive. Just think of an adult at a baseball game who reaches over a kid to catch a fly ball hit into the stands. For a second, he is a kid again. Then he wakes up and likely hands the ball to the child. 

With their immense influence over children, the owners of sports teams have moral authority, and with it the responsibility to protect children from believing life is determined by luck rather than hard work, talent, and teamwork. Even New Jersey officials, who want to legalize sports betting in the state, have outlawed betting on their amateur home-state teams.

Sports marketers make a distinction between the casual observer – a spectator – and the ardent participant – a fan. Yet if sports gambling greatly expands through legalization, a third type must be added: the investor. How else to describe someone whose main interest in a game is to make a financial killing? Do we, as Mr. Bettman put it, want sports fans who simply watch the spreads?

A few sports may not exist if gambling were not legal for them. Horse racing could be one of them. The college men’s basketball tournament, or “March Madness,” would likely not be so popular if the NCAA did not encourage fans to predict winners with a brackets contest, resulting in the common practice of office-pool betting on even the worst teams.

If sports gambling spreads as a result of being legalized, it will send the wrong message to the most dedicated yet vulnerable fans of sport – children (and the child in adult fans).  “I think there needs some attention to be paid to what sport is going to represent to young people,” Bettman said. 

Let’s keep the innocence of sport, one based on merit rather than promoting with a belief in luck. In that contest, the arguments of the NBA commissioner lose.

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