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Pa. hopes to hit a home run on sports betting

Published June 12. 2018 12:55PM

Sports enthusiasts spend billions of dollars annually wagering on the outcome of football, baseball and basketball games. Until now, only in Las Vegas and a few smaller sites have bettors been able to do this legally, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May is changing all of this.

Delaware has become the first area state out of the gate; it began sports betting earlier this month. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill approved unanimously by the state Legislature. The first bets are expected to be taken as soon as this Thursday.

Legislators from cash-strapped states, such as ours, have been salivating about this potentially lucrative new source of gambling money, and even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was behind the push to legalize sports betting, which he says will yield enormous economic benefits.

But, despite the coming legalization of sports betting, there are plenty of opponents who fear all sorts of dire consequences. I certainly have my strong reservations. The main concern, of course, involves gambling addiction. Sports betting is the type of activity that can quickly become addictive. Instead of a fan rooting for a local team, let’s say the Phillies or Yankees, pretty much accepting the outcome of a game which has no personal consequences, if a wager is placed, a bettor has a vested financial interest in the outcome of the game.

It might be just a few dollars a game, but it could grow into something much more significant and consequential. When bettors are on winning streaks, they have a tendency to go overboard; when they are on losing streaks, they tend to up the ante in an attempt to “get even.” Neither scenario is healthy. In striking down the 1992 federal law prohibiting commercial sports betting, the high court said the federal government was sticking its nose into state government’s business, that it should be up to each state to decide whether it wants to venture into this form of gambling.

In the majority court decision, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote: “A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine. It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals.”

This opens the floodgates to the legalization of what has been a $170 billion illegal wagering enterprise that Americans make on professional and amateur sports each year.

This means that once states pass the necessary laws, bettors will be able to step from the shadows into the sunlight and do what they had been doing illegally, except now a cut of this big business would go to government.

The 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that prohibited states from engaging in legal sports betting was championed by U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-New Jersey, a former Princeton University and pro basketball star. He felt the law was needed to maintain the integrity of sports.

How times have changed! Back then, most forms of gambling were forbidden, but today, as states come to rely more and more on gambling revenue to balance their budgets, the sky is pretty much the limit, and those who have been trying to put on the brakes to curb legalized gambling have been shoved to the sidelines.

Many have forgotten that Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill last fall that authorizes a number of new gaming options, including online casino games, online poker and regulation of daily fantasy sports. This bill also sets up Pennsylvania to offer legal sports betting should the Supreme Court rule in the state’s favor. And now it has. The bill signed by Wolf calls for a 36 percent tax on sports wagering, which will be steep compared to that of Nevada and other states that are likely to join the mix. This is on top of a $10 million licensing fee.

Despite this, a number of the top casinos in the state have shown interest in offering sports wagering to their existing patrons and also use it as a lure to bring in new customers.

In addition, with mobile and online sports betting, this means wagering does not have to take place within the confines of the gaming facilities.

Not everyone is giddy with excitement over the court’s ruling. Legislators in some statehouses, such as Mississippi, where college football is king, are trying to ensure that the games’ integrity is not compromised.

The NCAA, which regulates college sports, has been unequivocal in its opposition to all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering, saying that it has “strict guidelines for member institutions.”

With the court’s ruling, however, the NCAA now calls for strong federal legislation to regulate sports betting. “Sports wagering can adversely impact student-athletes and undermine the games they play,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert. He also said that while the NCAA recognizes the critical role of state government, strong federal standards are necessary to safeguard the integrity of college sports and the athletes who play them.

There is even concern that powerful crime figures might entice players to “throw” games to ensure big payoffs. To be sure, there have been periodic scandals in college basketball where players have been paid handsomely to “shave points.” Among these were CCNY in 1950-51, Boston College in 1978-79 and Arizona State in 2004-05.

These are some of the concerns our state legislators and Gov. Wolf need to consider before earnestly rolling the dice on another big form of gambling in our state.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

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