WASHINGTON – Major League Baseball appointed its first commissioner in 1921 to investigate the Chicago Black Sox scandal when members of the team conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.
Nearly a century later, newly appointed commissioner Rob Manfred is open to giving sports gambling “fresh consideration,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver is calling for federal legalization and some members of Congress are clamoring for change as gambling, once a moral taboo in the U.S., is now widely accepted.
The 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act banned sports gaming except in the four states where it already existed – Delaware, Montana, Oregon and Nevada, the only state where full-fledged sports gambling is legal.
New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak, D, serves in one of 46 states where gambling on sports is illegal. He sponsored a successful referendum to override federal legislation and crossed party lines to work with Republican Gov. Chris Christie to legalize sports gambling in New Jersey.
He laughed and called the ban on sports betting silly. Then he turned serious and called it an injustice.
Lesniak isn’t alone in his distaste for the 1992 federal law that placed a clamp on sports gamblers’ wallets.
“It’d be as if a law passed in 1929 saying the states that have sound with their movies can continue to have sound with their movies, but the other states can never have talkies,” I. Nelson Rose, an expert on gambling law and a professor at Whittier Law School, said. “It not only violates states’ rights but it’s irrational.”
The legislation was nicknamed the “Bradley Act,” after former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. The former NBA champion and presidential candidate led the bill to an 88-5 approval in the Senate. Now, members of his state are trying to tear down the law he constructed.
The overwhelming support to ban sports betting more than 20 years ago might take a 180-degree pivot if it was up for a vote today.
“It was motherhood and apple pie,” Lesniak said of that time.
It was a time before the American Gaming Association, the casino industry trade group, was formed. Forty states now have some type of casino gambling, and the AGA estimates the U.S. casino industry is worth $240 billion.
“As more states legalize casino gambling and the lottery, I think people have become more comfortable with the idea of gambling,” David Schwartz, director of University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Center for Gaming Research, said.
While public support for legalized sports gambling isn’t overwhelming, it’s trending upward. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters favored legalization in a national 2010 poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University. The same poll, in 2012, found that 51 percent favored sports betting.
If Silver and the NBA are advocating for sports gambling, the NFL and NCAA are playing devil’s advocate. The latter two organizations have remained firm in their opposition of rolling the dice on sports.
“They’ve been extremely offensive lobbyists,” Rose said. “The NFL is to congressional policy on sports betting as the NRA is to gun laws.”
The NCAA goes as far as to say that it “opposes all forms of gambling – legal and illegal – on college sports.”
The NFL was equally curt in its response to a request for comment.
“Our long-held opposition to gambling on NFL games continues. We have not changed our stance,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email.
“The NFL is doing hunky dory without it, but the NBA and MLB certainly look to be losing some market share in the sports world,” Lesniak said to explain the discrepancy among leagues.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Silver closed his call for federal legislation with this: “I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.”
The proposition is like finding a path to treasure with no map.
“It’s more than just interesting, it’s startling,” Rose said of the NBA’s sudden support for betting. “It’s almost inconceivable that there would be such a move by such a major player on the question of sports betting.”
It could be a generational shift, but Rose attributed Silver’s stance to the economic benefit sports gambling could provide. More than $15 billion has been bet on basketball in Nevada alone since 1984, not counting illegal wagers elsewhere.
“I think it’s economic, and I think it’s recognizing the truth,” Rose said. “It’s like saying there’s no climate change. You can live in a fact-free bubble for only so long.”
The AGA estimated that $3.8 billion was wagered illegally on the Super Bowl – 38 times the amount bet legally. Geoff Freeman, AGA president, wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking the Justice Department to crack down on illegal gambling.
The AGA sits in the crosshairs of two decisions: lobby for further government involvement in shutting down illegal gaming, or work with Congress to come up with a plan to legalize sports betting.
“There’s so much sports betting happening illegally that the intent of the current law is obviously not working,” AGA spokesman Chris Moyer said. “We’re trying to determine what the best path forward is for the industry.”
Moyer estimates that $140 billion was bet illegally on sports in 2013 but admitted the AGA doesn’t know if full regulation is possible. If it is, Silver may find his map and a substantial cut of the treasure.
Las Vegas’ bright lights are sports betting paradise and Nevada is one of PASPA’s lone beneficiaries. More than $68 billion has been bet on sports in the state over the last 30 years, according to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, R, was non-committal when considering the effect federal legalization could have upon his state’s economy. He spoke to a reporter during last weekend’s National Governor’s Association Conference.
“I guess the discussion on that is in its infant stages,” he said. “There’s a long way to go before there’s any conclusion. Having said that, we provide the greatest regulatory structure in the world.”
The Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling issued “Gambling in America” in 1976. It was a blanket report on the gaming industry, and it included this statement in its introduction:
“Gambling is an issue so fraught with ingrained moral and philosophical dichotomies and unresolved social questions that no disposition of the subject can ever come close to being universally accepted.”
The prophetic statement still holds true.
An act of Congress or court intervention is the only route to override PASPA. Federal legalization isn’t likely, Rose said, but he sees a path for sports betting to finds its way to the Supreme Court.
“I don’t think this court would have much trouble saying never in the history of the United States has the federal government completely stepped on states’ rights in the field of gambling,” Rose said.
Legalization could give Lesniak what he wants. It could put an end to the fight he began more than six years ago.
Atlantic City was once a booming resort destination. Today, the jewel of Jersey is on the verge of bankruptcy. Lesniak said he believes opening sports books could revitalize the area.
“Atlantic City’s biggest problem is that the average visitor stays 10, 11 hours,” Lesniak said. “A sports bettor will come for long weekends and even weeks during tournaments and spend money on hotel rooms, dining and shows.
You can get on a plane and go to Las Vegas where you can bet legally, but you can’t here?”
He laughed and called it silly. He turned serious and called it an injustice.
Reach reporter Joe Mussatto at [email protected] or 202-408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.