Big-time sports, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, have gone far beyond the sheer joy of athletics. International soccer is now mired in corruption. The Olympics is tainted by the latest doping scandal, this time in Russia. The US Supreme Court may decide if New Jersey can sponsor online sports betting. And the football team at the University of Missouri used the threat of a boycott – and lost revenue – to force the university system president to resign over racial issues.
And on Tuesday, New York’s attorney general ordered the closure of two websites operating in the state, DraftKings and FanDuel, because they “fleece” sports fans who gamble on “daily fantasy sports.” These sites create “the false perception” that any bets placed on artificial team rosters are “eminently winnable.”
For centuries, sports have been affected by other aspects of society or by individual frailty: fame, money, violence, gambling, social trends, cheating, and, of course, entertainment for spectators. When any one of these slops over into athletics, the image of a sport can be altered, if not the sport itself. College football players, for example, want a cut of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s TV revenues. Pro baseball statistics are suspect after widespread use of steroids. Some trends, on the other hand, are positive, such as a decline of public interest in violent sports like boxing and hockey, or the historic role of sports in racial integration.
Gambling has perhaps been the biggest nonsport activity to lately influence sports. That is why it is worth watching the explosion in betting on fantasy sports leagues – and the reaction to it. Seven states have so far decided to rein in these betting websites. New York’s action may deal the biggest blow.
Much of the debate has focused on whether sports betting is a game of skill or chance. But ultimately both judges and legislators may want to revisit the reasons for a 1992 federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. That law was a major attempt at reducing the influence of gambling on sports (and on those who gamble). A follow-up law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, was passed in 2006. The 1992 law was passed at the urging of a former pro basketball star, Bill Bradley, who later became a Democratic senator in New Jersey.
Senator Bradley was able to persuade Congress that sports gambling only sullies athletics. He stated that it “threatens the integrity of and public confidence in professional team sports, converting sports from wholesome athletic entertainment into a vehicle for gambling.” Sports, he wrote, involve a purity of experience rarely seen in life. They are a metaphor for “the meaning of excellence.”
Any athletics, even a kids’ soccer match, must be protected and preserved for the virtues it expresses, such as teamwork or a desire to break physical limitations. Almost anything else, especially sport gambling, must be seen as a diversion from the essence – the pure joy – of athletics.