Until last year, legal sports gambling in the United States primarily occurred in Nevada. The 2018 US Supreme Court decision in Murphy v. NCAA changed that, giving states and other governmental bodies the right to authorize sports betting. The revenue anticipated, whether accurately or not, by these governments from that change has now caused some states and the District of Columbia to move toward allowing sports betting on mobile devices, acknowledging but ignoring the problems that such ease of betting will cause their citizens, especially the young. This represents a drastic change in the attitude towards sports betting that has prevailed since 1919.
Nineteen nineteen was the year of the so-called Black Sox scandal, which involved Major League Baseball players fixing the World Series. Even though the players were acquitted in their criminal trial, the commissioner of Major League Baseball banned them from the game for life, stating emphatically that “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
The major professional sports leagues in the United States and the National Collegiate Athletic Association hewed to this anti-gambling position for 99 years. They all opposed the 2018 Supreme Court decision mentioned above.
Supporting their position was the law that the Supreme Court overturned last May, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. That law was sponsored by then-Senator Bill Bradley, who had been an All-American college-basketball player and a star professional. His views about why the law was important are in the best traditions of good government: “State-sanctioned sports betting puts the imprimatur of the state on this activity. It conveys the message that sports are more about money than personal achievement and sportsmanship. In these days of scandal and disillusionment, it is important that our youngsters not receive this message.”
Senator Bradley’s emphasis on the young echoes an argument that has been made by other opponents of sports betting. That argument against easing access to sports betting was acknowledged, but essentially ignored, in the 2018 Supreme Court opinion: “[I]t is particularly addictive and especially attractive to young people with a strong interest in sports.”
Since being authorized to legalize sports betting by the Supreme Court, some states—New Jersey and Mississippi, for example—have weakly protected the young and the addicted by requiring that sports betting occur only at casinos or racetracks. Other jurisdictions, however—for example, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, and Iowa—are considering dispensing with even that protection of young or addicted sports gamblers by moving toward a mobile gambling regime that would allow sports bets with just a few keystrokes. Even though mobile sports gambling may violate the federal Wire Act, so anxious are these jurisdictions for the revenue that they believe will come from mobile sports gambling that, as they hurtle forward, they are dispensing with other good government practices, like competitive bidding.
Earlier this month, for example, the Council for the District of Columbia voted to suspend competitive bidding rules for operating online bidding. The reasoning for suspending this practice, according to DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, is that the normal competitive bidding process would take two years, a period during which he estimates DC could otherwise generate $61 million in mobile-sports-betting revenue.
Arguments for other good government practices met similar fates in the DC council deliberations. A council member opposing the suspension of competitive bidding argued that violence-prevention programs, which were scheduled to be financed in part by gambling revenue, should be financed by more stable and predictable sources of income than gambling. Another argued that rushing the bidding process was particularly uncalled for in light of previous scandals with the DC Lottery. In the end, as one of the members of the council noted, “It came down to the money.” This position is the polar opposite of the policy underlying the gambling position set out by Senator Bradley.
Rhode Island is an example of another state that is actively considering adding mobile sports betting to its sports betting operation. The problem with financing programs from gambling revenue was well-illustrated there after the recent Super Bowl: Rhode Island lost $1,200,000 on that game.
Another state considering legalizing mobile betting is Iowa. Although no consensus proposal has come forward yet with respect to whether betting will be limited to casinos and racetracks or will also be mobile, at least one legislator has recognized the dangers to good government posed by mobile sports gambling: “I would want to know the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission would have the resources to police any ‘bad actors’ who may come on the scene. I would also expect to increase the funds available for gambling treatment and addiction. And…I don’t want some 14-year-old grabbing dad’s credit card and running up thousands of dollars in betting.” The legislator notes in the same article that “Sports gambling would generate the money to pay for these safeguards and conditions,” without being specific, without recognizing that gambling can produce losses as well as wins for Iowa, and without noting that sports gambling would generate some of the very problems that the revenue from sports gambling would purportedly solve.
It is not yet known which jurisdiction—Iowa, DC, Rhode Island, or some other state—will win this race to the bottom of bad law supported by bad policy. Whether or not one believes that states and other local governments should authorize sports betting, however, such laws can and should still be consistent with good government to the extent possible. In the past, limitations on sports betting have had the aim of protecting the integrity of players and of the game. The protection of good government should now be added to that list.