New Jersey's bad call on sports betting

New Jersey plans to allow sports betting early next year in defiance of federal law and possible corruption of the culture of sports. The state even admits such gambling would harm its own teams.

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Gov. Chris Christie is defying a federal ban on sports betting with a new law that lets people in New Jersey bet on the outcomes of football, basketball and other games – except the state's own college games.

New Jersey announced Monday that it will start to issue licenses for betting on sports early next year – in full defiance of a federal law that bans it. If upheld in court, New Jersey’s move would be a legal opening for other states to allow wagering on professional and collegiate games.

But don’t bet on it.

For starters, New Jersey admits the potential assault that such gambling might have on the integrity of sports. The law authorizing this step also bans gambling on the state’s own college teams or any collegiate sporting events held within the state.

New Jersey’s hypocrisy lights up the legal skies like Atlantic City at night. And for some in the tri-state area, memories remain of the bribe-taking antics of the 1951 basketball team at City College in New York.

Then there’s the response from the National Collegiate Athletic Association immediately following the state’s announcement. The NCAA will pull five championships out of New Jersey next year. Like many sports organizations, the NCAA sees how sports betting, especially in the Internet age, has increased in Asia and Europe, corrupting enough games to scare away fans.

But New Jersey is itching for a legal fight anyway. It hopes the Supreme Court will overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act passed by Congress in 1992. That federal law bans sports betting in all but four states  – Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana – that had it at the time. 

The state is up against a united front. The major professional sports leagues in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey – in addition to the NCAA – have started a federal lawsuit against New Jersey’s action. Legalizing sport betting would not only expand the gambling that now goes on illegally for many pro games, they say, but will taint the culture of sports in ways far more damaging than other corrupting activities, such as doping.

Pro sports would be damaged if governments approve the effort to treat sports as a game of luck rather than skill. The culture of sports rests on a pursuit of talent and faith on a level playing field. And adding the e-commerce of betting, especially live during a game, has been shown in other countries to attract organized crime because of the ease of hiding its involvement.

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New Jersey also admits the potential harm of sports betting in its decision to have it run by Atlantic City casinos and horse racing tracks. If it’s so harmless, why not let every lottery stand run it?

The state’s desire to raise revenue through sports wagers – perhaps $120 million a year – would be more than offset by the loss of spectators and sports leagues that will always be suspicious of game-fixing by powerful gamblers.

The state should take a long timeout on this plan.

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