The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Dec. 4 about the federal ban on sports gambling, with many of the justices appearing to lean toward overturning the ban in order to uphold state rights. The high court, not to mention the states, must be cautious about such a move.
Illegal sports gambling may already be widely practiced and mostly underground. But if state lawmakers and sports leagues are allowed to rake in money from legal betting on sports, they will then promote and expand it. Can they be trusted to control the potential social costs, such as match-fixing by players and underage gambling?
This court case is as much about the integrity of sports and the damage to vulnerable populations as it is the Constitution’s provision for states to regulate their internal matters. Congress was not wrong when it passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which imposed a national ban while grandfathering the practice for four states that already allowed it.
As casino gambling has declined, New Jersey decided to challenge the law in hopes of reviving its gambling industry and maintaining the flow of taxes from betting. Its case to overturn the federal ban has not fared well in lower courts. But for some reason, the Supreme Court decided to take up the issue. A majority of the justices may believe it is time for states that want sports gambling to come to grips with it on their own.
Yet the track record on all legalized gambling in the United States does not argue for even more of it on sports. Problem gambling has negative effects on an estimated 7 percent of the population, according to work by McGill University professor Jeffrey Derevensky. The most obvious effect is the cost of gambling addiction on individuals and their families. But legalized gambling also hits those least able to afford it. The poorest third of Americans buy more than half of all lottery tickets. They are often targeted by government to keep buying tickets.
And based on the high level of match-fixing in world soccer under FIFA, the US should be worried about potential pressure on pro players from gambling syndicates. Note that the US Justice Department now has a court trial against many former FIFA-related officials over charges of corruption.
New Jersey itself is worried enough about sports gambling that it had set plans to shield amateur sports from its effects and to track gamblers by their location within the state. But can such legal and technological efforts really work in the Digital Age?
Such questions are difficult for states to answer let alone court judges. The Supreme Court has often weighed the social consequences of its rulings. If it bursts the dam on sports gambling, Americans must be ready to counter the money-seeking motives of state governments and sports leagues. Gambling has too many costs to treat it as a norm and a cash cow.