Reimer: It's about time states are allowed to legalize sports betting

Alex Reimer
May 14, 2018 - 12:33 pm

WEEI photo

Ostracizing sports betting while gambling became widely legalized always seemed odd. Most states offer lotteries and more than half of them have casinos. Even in puritan Massachusetts, resort casinos are being built in Springfield and Everett. 

The contradiction came to a long-awaited end Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal ban on state-sanctioned sports betting is unconstitutional. The case was awarded in favor of New Jersey, which challenged the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1992. 

Momentum has been moving in the direction of legalization for the last several years. In 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed his support for legalized sports betting in a New York Times op-ed. “Outside of the United States, sports betting and other forms of gambling are popular, widely legal and subject to regulation,” he writes. “In England, for example, a sports bet can be placed on a smartphone, at a stadium kiosk or even using a television remote control. 

“In light of these domestic and global trends, the laws on sports betting should be changed.”

Even tight-lipped NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has appeared to soften on the subject. Recently, he’s taken to blabbering about preserving the integrity of the game whenever the topic is broached, the ultimate sign that he’s dodging the question. The NFL tacitly expressed its apparent ambivalence towards sports gambling when it OK’d the Raiders’ relocation to Las Vegas, where it’s already legal to wager on games, of course. (The NFL's statement, predictably, includes vague language about "protecting the integrity of the game.") 

States across the country, including Massachusetts, have been preparing for this moment. There’s currently a bill in the Massachusetts state senate that would establish a commission to figure out sports betting taxation, regulation and consumer protection. 

Much like proponents of legalized marijuana, those who advocate for legal sports gambling cite the large number of Americans who already participate in the activity. An estimated nearly $400 billion is illegal wagered on sports each year. It would be nice, and financially prudent, if that business could be regulated and taxed.

There is the worry that legalizing sports betting would only further promote a potentially degenerative and destructive addiction. But that already happened long ago. Hell, some NFL owners, including Robert Kraft, are investors in daily fantasy sports companies. You can wager money on players’ performances each night, but not whether their teams will win or beat the spread. It makes no sense.

With the potential for sports betting to be legalized nationwide –– every state must now create its own laws on the subject –– there will be more access than ever before. But each professional sports league still forbids its players from gambling on games, of course. The deterrent still exists. 

Besides, PASPA was never meant to outlaw sports betting. The practice was legal in Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana, because they had already adopted sports gambling laws prior to the edict’s passage in 1992. PASPA was created to prevent sports betting from spreading, not stop it all together. 

That means, as Sports Illustrated legal guru Michael McCann notes, those four states were being treated differently than the rest of the country. Residents of Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana were receiving preferential treatment from the federal government.

New Jersey’s primary argument was the anti-commandeering doctrine, which dates back to Supreme Court opinions from 1842. The doctrine prohibits the federal government from mandating that states impose regulation when there isn't a federal standard. There was no federal regulatory stance on sports betting, since it was still legal in multiple states.

There are plenty of compelling legal arguments to strike down PASPA. But common sense remains the most convincing. WEEI’s gambling aficionado Mike Mutnansky presented the laymen argument nicely in a text message to me. 

“It never made sense an adult in Boston could walk into a convenience store and buy a million scratch tickets, but that same guy can’t bet legally on the Red Sox that night? Or have a few bucks on the Patriots without going through a bookie or some off-shore account?,” he said. “Let’s hope Massachusetts is ready to move on this quickly. (It’s) a great day.”

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