Why states shouldn't cash in on Super Bowl odds

A federal court case against a New Jersey law allowing sports gambling shows why betting on sports will only damage athletic competition – as well as bettors.

AP Photo
Arnie Wexler, former head of New Jersey's Council on Compulsive Gambling, signs certificates last year for employees of Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, who completed a training program he runs on compulsive gambling.

By the half-time show of the 2013 Super Bowl game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, Americans will have gambled an estimated $10 billion on various aspects of the sports spectacle – from picking the winner to whether Alicia Keys will flub the words of the national anthem.

New Jersey would like a cut of that $10 billion and more of the money now regularly wagered privately on sporting events. Last year, the state approved a new law to start doing just that.

But on Feb. 1, the Obama administration filed a court brief to block the state action. And on Feb. 14, a federal judge will hear arguments on whether New Jersey – along with other states eager to follow its example – can be allowed to ignore a 1992 federal law against sports betting.

The judge in the case, Michael A. Shipp, has already agreed with four major professional sports leagues as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, that the integrity of athletic competition might be harmed if states can expand sports betting by making it legal. (The leagues are the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.)

The brief by the US Justice Department rests mainly on the constitutionality of the 1992 federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or PASPA. But it also upholds the intent of Congress to protect sports from the type of game fixing and other corruption seen in other countries where sports betting is legal.

“Congress is not limited to addressing purely economic matters – it also may seek to remedy social or moral concerns that substantially effect interstate commerce,” said the brief.

The court case could not come at a better time. A national poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University finds a rapid rise in the public acceptance of legalized sports betting, from 39 percent two years ago to 51 percent last year. One-third of registered voters – as well as a majority of women – are against it.

New Jersey’s case might seem strong to Americans who now gamble on sports. But consider this: The new law prevents gambling on all collegiate sporting events within the Garden State. What’s bad for New Jersey and its school teams ought to be bad for the country and all its sports teams.

A third of National Basketball Association fans, for example, already think game fixing is a problem. About a fifth of “March Madness” fansagree. This perception would only grow if sports wagering were legal. The big sports leagues also found in surveys that fans would attend fewer games if sports gambling were legal.

Also consider this: Las Vegas, one of the nation’s larger metropolitan areas, has no major-league franchise because the leagues don’t want their sports tainted by the betting now allowed within the state. (PASPA made an allowance for Nevada.)

New Jersey has another problem, one that might not come up in court. About 350,000 people in the state are compulsive gamblers, with many of them young people hooked on Internet betting and about 6 to 10 percent of these addicts losing money on sports wagers.

Why add to this social and financial problem that ruins so many lives? And why should states like New Jersey seek revenue from an activity that only feeds into the addiction of an estimated 3 percent of the population?

But even for nonaddicts, the “fun” of betting on the Super Bowl – the largest sporting event of the year – only adds to a perception that “luck” drives one’s life.

What a contrast to the thinking of athletes who know that such qualities as hard work, talent, and teamwork are the real predictors of who wins in sports.

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