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For sports gamblers, a possible state of sin

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You think the NFL has a problem with Matt Walsh, the New England Patriots and Spygate?

Is so-called rogue referee and game-fixer Tim Donaghy — he bet on more than 100 NBA games — commissioner David Stern's only gambling concern?

Does the challenge of Southern Cal in light of the Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo scandals keep NCAA officials awake at night, or does something more disturbing cause that insomnia?

Steroids haunt baseball. But is what looms on the horizon more of a challenge to the integrity of the game, a Pandora's box containing baseball's greatest mortal sin?

It could be on all counts.

What quietly is taking place just north in the small state of Delaware could change the sports landscape in America and cause more consternation among sports leaders than any other issue.

Delaware is on the verge of instituting sports betting.

Last week, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow betting on professional and college sports at state casinos. It now moves onto the Senate, where it likely will pass.

The governor, Ruth Ann Minner, opposes the measure and might veto it should it come to her desk, according to reports. Even so, the bill that passed would not take effect until 2009, after Minner leaves office.

Little rattles the nerves of the leaders of professional and college sports more than the prospect of legalized sports betting, however hypocritical that stance might be.

Nevada is the only state in which such betting legally takes place. Lobbyists for the major sports leagues mounted a successful campaign more than 15 years ago to make sure that was the only place it ever would be allowed, pushing through a federal law that banned sports betting.

The problem with that bill, though — and the reason sports betting is inevitable in Delaware — is that four states already had legislation on the books permitting such gambling before the federal ban.

Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware were exempt from the ban because they already had laws permitting sports betting, though only Nevada and Oregon (a weak football parlay game) have such active betting.

Delaware held a sports lottery briefly in 1976, but it failed and was stopped after 14 weeks. The new measure, however, calls for more encompassing sports betting opportunities, though not quite as wide open as what Nevada offers.

The NFL placed ads opposing the law in local newspapers. The league last week ran an ad in the Wilmington News Journal arguing to "Keep Vegas in Vegas" and suggesting that "Sports Betting = More Problems, Not More Revenue."

It's a losing battle. Delaware will have legalized sports betting, if not now then sometime in the near future. When that happens, prepare for a legal challenge to the federal law from other states.

Delaware, unlike many other states, has no professional sports teams within its borders, and therefore lobbying efforts by the leagues against the gambling measure are considerably weakened.

The NCAA, with the University of Delaware such a major institution in the state, does have a voice. The proposed bill, however, excludes betting on Delaware's collegiate teams — as if there would be a stampede to wager on the Blue Hens.

Delaware also faces a battle from neighboring states for the gambling dollar. The state for many years has reaped the rewards of the slot machines at its horse tracks — and in doing so helped cripple the horse racing industry in Maryland.

Now, many of the bettors in nearby states who used to travel to Delaware to gamble can stay right at home to donate their money to the one-armed bandits.

Pennsylvania last year legalized slot machines, with 14 casinos approved for more than 70,000 slot machines. And now you have the battle taking place in Maryland, where voters will decide in November whether to approve slots.

If that happens, Delaware will be surrounded by states that offer the same vice they do. Then, really, what's the point of going to Delaware? Tax-free shopping?

The Pandora's box of gambling was opened long ago, when states legalized and ran their own numbers operations — government-sanctioned lotteries. Slot machines were a logical next step. And when everyone has slots, lawmakers look for a new revenue stream. Despite the moral objections, elected officials love gambling — instead of taking your money through taxes, you give them your money.

The New Jersey State Assembly passed a bill in February allowing legalized sports betting in Atlantic City casinos despite the federal ban. That measure hasn't gone anywhere, but once Delaware approves sports betting, everyone will want into the game.

Then, the fight will be on.

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