Mixing sports and sports gambling is no game

A Supreme Court ruling overturning a federal law may now create a rush by states to legalize sports wagering. But lawmakers should recall the reasons for the original ban. Sports rely on integrity and skill, not a belief in luck.

AP Photo
Signs for Monmouth Park race track are displayed in Oceanport, N.J., May 14. The Supreme Court on Monday gave its go-ahead for states to allow gambling on sports across the nation, striking down a federal law that barred most states from authorizing betting on football, basketball, baseball and other sports.

In a big decision May 14, the Supreme Court overturned a 1992 federal law that had effectively banned all states except Nevada from legalizing sports betting. The court had no opinion about sports gambling itself or about any possible new ban on interstate sports gambling or on individuals who wager on sports. It merely reasserted a constitutional restraint on federal power over the states.

So before states rush to permit, regulate, and tax sports betting – as about 20 states have been poised to do – they may want to first weigh the original reasons behind the now-defunct ban.

The big reason given back then by Congress was to maintain sports as a public display of talent, effort, and teamwork – the very opposite of a belief in chance. The integrity of athletes lies in their ability to master the circumstances of a game.

In sports, unforeseen circumstances are not considered luck but rather a challenge to test the skills of athletes. Sports should not be sullied by the false hopes of quick riches by gamblers pining for a “lucky break.”

Like society itself, sports rely on each person’s desire to understand the causality of events and make the best of them. Athletes know they cannot put faith in so-called fortune.

Nor should governments. If states now boost sports betting by legalizing it, what message are they sending about athletics – in fact, about any physical or mental endeavor?

According to Bill Bradley, a former NBA star and the then-senator who sponsored the 1992 law, placing bets on players makes them no better than roulette chips. “It makes the game – which is a game of high-level competition and excellence – into slot machines, and I don’t think that should be what we do in this country,” he told NPR. Sports have a dignity that defies those who want to see games turning on a twist of fate.

Mr. Bradley also gives a second reason for governments not to push wagering on sports. Should gambling be allowed on Little League games or middle-school athletics? Even New Jersey, which led the case against the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, did not want betting on its local teams.

Up to now, most major professional sports leagues were opposed to lifting the federal ban. They feared athletes might throw a game or simply rig a play at the behest of gambling syndicates, as is often the case in many parts of the world. If games were seen as, well, gamed, fans might flee. Now after this ruling, however, leagues might be tempted by the possibility they could get what is misnamed an “integrity fee,” or a percentage of gambling revenues from each game. States, too, appear tempted to gain tax revenue from sports gambling – although they should first look at how little Nevada has actually gained from sports betting in comparison to other types of gambling.

The uncertainties of legalized, regulated sports gambling in the United States are very high. But one certainty remains: Sports must remain pure in their purpose as a contest of what athletes give in a game, not what betting can take from them.

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