Early this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments brought by the state of New Jersey over the establishment of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). The case hinges on whether or not the law is constitutional or not. The issue, according to legal experts, is that all states should be treated equally and since PASPA “grandfathered in” four states where sports betting was already occurring in some form or another, it wasn’t fair to the rest of the states.
Passed in 1992, PASPA was written by New Jersey’s very own senator and former star basketball player Bill Bradley, who was aghast that bettors would sully his sport.
“Athletes are not roulette chips, but sports gambling treats them as such,” wrote Bradley sanctimoniously at the time. “If the dangers of state-sponsored sports betting are not confronted, the character of sports and youngsters’ view of them could be seriously threatened.”
There were others who had some common sense, even back then.
“My reaction is that we’re trying to close the barn door here after it’s already been opened, and a great many of the horses have escaped,” said Kentucky Congressman Romano Mazzoli at a PASPA hearing in 1991. “I just don’t know whether we can corral those horses and put them back in the barn.”
Even the Department of Justice didn’t think PASPA was a great idea, opposing its passage.
“Generally speaking, it is left to the states to decide whether to permit gambling activities based upon sporting events,” Assistant Attorney General W. Lee Rawls wrote to then-Senator Joe Biden.
Well, Mazzoli’s horses are now running wild, spawning an illegal industry worth many billions of dollars with not one red cent going to any state or federal coffers.
In a call with reporters last month, Sara Slane, senior vice president of public affairs for the American Gaming Association, called PASPA a “failed law” which, instead of prohibiting sports betting, simply channeled it to a vast illegal and unregulated business.
“It’s a different world than when PASPA was signed,” she said. “Both the perception and the industry have changed. Now, it’s time for the law to do the same. We want to empower states and tribal sovereign nations by giving them the opportunity to decide whether to legalize and regulate sports betting, just as they have done for years with casinos, lotteries and other forms of gaming.”
So everyone is waiting with baited breath to see what the Supreme Court will decide, sometime next spring.
But you know what? It probably doesn’t
matter. The handwriting is on the wall.
The legalization of sports betting began to get momentum more than three years ago when National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver penned an op-ed in the New York Times pointing out that PASPA has been a complete failure, and it’s time to look again at making the wager legal. So it’s probably not a coincidence that just last month the NBA began lobbying members of Congress to allow sports betting.
According Legal Sports Report, NBA Assistant General Counsel Dan Spillane is working with “advisors” in Washington, D.C. to craft legislation to permit sports betting.
Since the Silver piece in the Times, other heads of major sports leagues have affirmed his stance. While not as aggressive as the NBA, leaders in American soccer, baseball, hockey and other sports have at least agreed we need to reconsider the issue. Only the NFL—the 800-pound gorilla—is still on the fence.
But it won’t be for long. No matter what the Supreme Court decides—and the range of possibilities goes from complete rejection of PASPA to a more nuanced approach—there is a sea change occurring over sports betting. After New Jersey, more than a dozen states have already drawn up legislation that would create a path to legal sports betting once PASPA is repealed or replaced.
Oh, and let’s also not believe this is the silver bullet, either. While the repeal of PASPA could open that proverbial barn door again, there are still issues like the very narrow margins the sports-betting business creates, as well as a federal excise tax on the books that could stop the industry before it even gets started.
But first things first. Let’s find those horses, herd them together and get them running in the same direction. That in itself would be a tremendous accomplishment—a step that must be taken in order to make sports betting the viable part of the gaming industry we all know it can be.