The sports pages offered no refuge from politics on Monday, as the big story of the day was a Supreme Court decision overturning the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a federal law that prohibited states other than Nevada from legalizing and regulating and benefitting from betting on athletic contests. All the sports scribes expect it will have a significant effect on their beats, and we’d wager they’re right.
The Supreme Court’s decision is sound, at least from our political and jurisprudential perspective. Dealing with sports betting strikes us as one of those powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, and the tenth amendment specifically “reserves those powers to the states respectively, or to the people.” This has long proved wise, as these sorts of things are generally better handled by the states, or better yet by the people.
Still, we hope that most of the states will refrain from legalizing and regulating and cashing in on the sports bookmaking racket. So far the only state already set to do so is New Jersey, which brought the lawsuit to the courts, but Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are expected to soon follow, and there are bound to be a lot more later on. It’s going to take a lot of lobbying to make it happen here in Kansas, which long resisted the few small Indian casinos that have recently popped up outside the most populous cities, but it could happen eventually.
Opposed to New Jersey in its protracted lawsuit were the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, all of whom regard sports gambling as a threat to their businesses. Although the friendly side bet between fans probably enhances interest in their offerings, and all those office pools have made the NCAA’s annual basketball championship tournaments something of a national mania every March, the sports moguls rightly worry that with bigger bucks on the seedier elements on the sporting scene’s fringes will have an incentive to pay off players and fix the games. Except for Vince McMahon’s pro wrestling freak show all the big-time sports depend on a perception that their games are fair contests between teams trying their best to win, and the occasional point-shaving and game-fixing scandals that have afflicted all of them at one time or another have always found it bad for business.
Which is not the only way we’ve noticed that betting takes some of the fun out of sports. Many’s the time we’ve seen a die-hard fan watch his beloved team win a big game, but instead of exulting in the victory he fumes that they only won by 19 points and didn’t cover the 20-point spread. Their teams are less beloved when on a losing streak, too, and they seem not to notice the aesthetic beauty of a winning streak. Sport is supposed to be a a welcome break from serious matters, and it inevitably loses that appeal when your baby’s new pair of shoes are on the line.
Gambling is one of the few vices we’ve never been susceptible to, so we’ll not cast the first stone against anyone who puts a few bucks down on the hometown heroes, but its increasing ubiquity does seem to contribute our general cultural rot. It’s a sucker’s game in the long run, like so much of our increasingly coarse culture, and it holds out the same impossible promise of something for nothing that permeates our increasingly corrupt politics. We’re willing to let the people decide for themselves how to deal with sports betting, but we’re always uncomfortable with governments getting involved.
Governments are established as a monopoly on the protection racket, after all, and that should suffice to fund their many good works, so we can’t see why they should move in on the gambling rackets. There’s a strong short term argument that some people are going to gamble in any event, what with human beings being such suckers, and that the money should be going to the government’s many good works rather than your local bookie and kneecapping collector, but in the longer run gamblers always lose. Some people are going patronize prostitutes in any case, and ingest all sorts of dangerous drugs in any case, and indulge in all sorts of other socially unhealthy behavior in any case, and there’s same short term argument to be made in every case that the government’s good works might as well get their cut of the action.
In the longer term, governments tend to be just as as greedy as your local bookmaker and as ruthless as his kneecapping collector, or your neighbor pimp or dangerous drug dealer or newfangled cult leader, but they still somehow have the ability to give not only the imprimatur of respectability but well-funded advertising campaigns to activities that previous generations of democracy considered socially unhealthy, and the odds are always against that working out. A few decades ago the state of New Jersey laid down a huge bet on now-President Donald Trump’s now-defunct garish casinos and strip clubs, and it proved as prescient as a bet on Trump’s now-defunct New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, which was not a party to the recent Supreme Court-settled lawsuit because it is also now-defunct. If the feds or the states or any government tries to hone in on the prostitution and drug and other assorted rackets, they’ll eventually wind up with the same problems.
Still, we think the Supreme Court was wise to decide that according to the Constitution the states and the people are free to make their own mistakes about these matters, and we only hope that most of the states and most of the people choose as wisely.
If you do place a sports bet at your local state-funding bookmaker, though, we’d advise that you don’t bet on college kids, take the spread on the pro underdog that’s facing a heavy favorite at the end of a long road trip, and by all means take the spread on an any underdog that’s still fighting for a playoff spot against a team that’s already clinched a high seed. Over many years we’ve taken a purely intellectual interest in the sports lines, and have long noticed that we could have made a fortune on these insights.
By the way, the Boston Red Sox lost by a mere run to the plucky Oakland Athletics on Monday, putting our beloved New York Yankees temporarily in sole possession of the American League East lead and baseball’s record by half-a-game. That should have been the biggest sports story of the day, and we didn’t even have any money riding on it.
— Bud Norman