NBA commissioner Adam Silver says it’s time to end the modern-day equivalent of prohibition and allow widespread, legalized gambling on pro sports.
By sheer coincidence (not), NBA owners just purchased an equity stake in the daily fantasy sports contest FanDuel. Technically, fantasy isn’t gambling. But it’s a game of chance nonetheless, attracting an estimated 41 million participants who invest a total of $4.55 billion, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
It’s impossible to determine how much money is spent on illegal, real-life sports wagers. But the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimates the amount is somewhere between $80 billion and $380 billion annually.
The NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB have long supported the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, passed in 1992, which prohibits authorized sports wagering outside of Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. But in a New York Times op-ed column last week, Silver executed a reverse pivot that would make Hakeem Olajuwon proud.
He said “sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated.
“Times have changed since PASPA was enacted,” Silver wrote. “Gambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States. Most states offer lotteries. Over half of them have legal casinos. Three have approved some form of Internet gambling, with others poised to follow.
“There is an obvious appetite among sports fans for a safe and legal way to wager on professional sporting events.”
He’s right about folks’ hunger. But not all cravings should be fed automatically.
Large segments of the population fuel demand in the sex and drug trades, too.
We can’t legislate morality, but that doesn’t mean we should legalize hedonism.
Johns and junkies seem to be lower on the degenerate scale than gamblers, though, especially when the latter can scratch their itches at work through survivor pools, fantasy leagues and tournament brackets. If someone in the finance or accounting department also takes bets, that’s a bonus.
There appears to be a certain inevitability to Silver’s suggestion. The pro sports leagues are now partners — silent or otherwise — in every gambling operation.
MLB has an agreement with daily fantasy sports site DraftKings. So does the NHL, which also is considering an expansion franchise in Las Vegas. The NFL allows teams to sponsor daily fantasy football contests and it promotes fantasy stats — not to mention the longstanding policy of mandating numerous injury updates as a wink-wink nod to point spreads and over-unders.
The pro leagues supported the fantasy-sports exemption that was included in Congress’ 2006 anti-gambling legislation. They argued that, as opposed to betting on games, constructing successful fantasy teams takes some skill.
Tell that to everyone who drafted Adrian Peterson.
The hypocrisy of encouraging fantasy sports investments while opposing wagers on favorites or underdogs can’t be defended. Silver deftly advanced his stance while remaining in line with the other pro leagues, which are fighting New Jersey’s attempt to offer sports betting. U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp will hear arguments next week.
“Without a comprehensive federal solution,” Silver wrote, “state measures such as New Jersey’s recent initiative will be both unlawful and bad public policy.”
He cited the prevalence of sports betting around the world, noting that England allows wagers via smartphone, TV remote control and stadium kiosks. As long as the system has strict regulations and technological safeguards, “Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports,” he wrote.
That takes NCAA wagering off the table, another smart move.
The obvious concern about opening the door to widespread sports betting — aside from the lives and families ruined by people with gambling addictions — is the threat of rigged contests. “More legal gambling leads to more total gambling, which in turn leads to an increased incentive to fix plaintiffs’ matches,” Shipp said in an earlier ruling on behalf of the leagues.
For what it’s worth, disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who served 15 months in jail for a betting scandal, agrees with Silver that legal betting would make corruption less likely. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban supports Silver as well.
“We all know leagues benefit from the interest in our leagues that [gambling and fantasy sports] create,” Cuban told CBSSports.com in an email exchange. “In the past for PR reasons, we have put up token resistance to them. I agree with Adam that now is the time to take sports betting out of the shadows and deal with it like the huge business it is.”
Fantasy sports have become real, bringing in real dollars.
It’s only a matter of time before legal sports wagering becomes reality, too.