Tackle the rush to sports gambling

A Supreme Court ruling has left states free to legalize sports wagering, raising issues of how to protect the integrity of sports. Congress is starting to weigh in.

AP Photo
Bettors wait to make wagers on sporting events at the Borgata casino in Atlantic City, N.J., hours after it began accepting sports bets in June.

In a decision last May, the Supreme Court said that individual states can, in effect, “Play ball!” on legalized sports betting. The ruling overturned a 1992 federal ban on the practice. In just three months, seven states have approved sports wagering while 14 others have bills pending. More could follow. The rush is on to tap the estimated $150 billion now spent in illegal sports gambling each year in the United States.

Wait a minute, say two key leaders in Congress. In August, Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Chuck Schumer (D) of New York each proposed federal guardrails to prevent problems inherent to sports betting. The big issue: how to protect the integrity of sports from attempts to fix a game, shave a point, or simply gain insider information about a player’s injury. Individual states are now coming up with their own rules – or no rules – to deal with this issue.

Such risks are very real in Asia and Europe where legalized sports betting is already allowed. Last year, for example, a World Cup qualifying game between Senegal and South Africa had to be replayed after a referee was accused of trying to fix the match. In a few overseas sports leagues, corruption has diminished fan interest. Such a loss of reputation now worries US sports officials if states are able to expand interest in sports betting beyond its current levels.

To really protect a sport from gambling interests will take more than a new federal law. It will require a deeper understanding of a sport’s basic worth to both players and fans. In a speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Hatch defined the integrity of sports as “honest and genuine competition,” free from outside influence.

“There is a reason predetermined outcomes in professional wrestling attract a small fraction of the following enjoyed by baseball, football, basketball, and other sports,” he said.

Sports are popular largely because they are authentic displays of talent, effort, and teamwork. Gambling, on the other hand, is a display of a belief in something called luck. To get around the implicit problem of relying on “chance,” sports gamblers may try to “game the odds” by cheating, such as bribing a player to throw a game.

In college sports, where student athletes still enjoy some reputation of participating as amateurs, some federal protection is especially critical. “We need to continue to educate them about the challenges associated with gambling and the importance of the integrity of the game,” says James Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten conference of college football teams.

He and other top sports officials are asking Congress for a federal framework to protect sports from an upsurge in gambling. Hatch plans to introduce legislation in coming weeks while Mr. Schumer laid out a few basic  ideas. One is to set a minimum age for betting at 21 years old. Another is to ensure that betting entities use only official data from sports leagues. “The integrity of sports is too precious to not protect as best we can,” Schumer said.

State-sanctioned sports gambling should not turn athletes into something akin to roulette chips. For centuries, sports have served a nobler purpose in the demand for – and pleasure in – displays of excellence. Luck has nothing to do with that.

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