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COMMENTARY : Betting Bill Hard to Understand


WASHINGTON — The Chicago Bears' Mike Singletary testified before a Senate subcommittee this summer and described a crucial game he played against the Minnesota Vikings. His finger was gashed to the bone -- "one of the most gory injuries I have ever had" -- and the team physician put a dozen stitches in the finger so that the linebacker could get back in the game. Singletary returned just in time to help in a goal-line stand that preserved the win for Chicago.

What did this have to do with the business of Congress? "Mr. Chairman," Singletary said, "I did not return to that game to protect a point spread. ... There is no greater threat to an athlete's personal sense of accomplishment than state-legalized sports gambling. State-legalized sports betting makes a mockery of an athlete's sacrifices and commitments and undermines our ability to set a positive example for young people."

This non sequitur typifies the level of testimony and debate over the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Singletary's theme was echoed by buttons worn by the bill's supporters that read "Don't Gamble With Our Children's Heroes."

It's pretty hard for any legislator to cast a vote against our children's heroes, and as a result Congress appears on the verge of passing a law that would prohibit legalized sports betting in 46 states and the District of Columbia -- not only Las Vegas-style wagering, but also state lotteries based on sports. (Nevada is exempted from the ban, as are Oregon and Delaware, which already permit sports-based lotteries. New Jersey would be given two years to legalize sports betting in Atlantic City casinos.)

The House already has passed the sports-betting measure as part of its omnibus crime bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider it Thursday. Even its opponents -- most notably state-lottery boards -- expect it will become law in some form. But why?

Certainly there is no groundswell of popular opinion in favor of a ban on gambling in this gambling-crazed country, where it is practically un-American to watch the Super Bowl without at least a friendly wager or a stake in an office pool. The whole impetus for this legislation has come from the professional sports leagues, led by the National Football League, whose commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, testified on Capitol Hill that "the spread of legalized sports gambling would change forever -- and for the worse -- what our games stand for and the way they are perceived."

Of course, the NFL's sanctimoniousness smacks of hypocrisy, for it is gambling that has helped make their game so popular, that keeps viewers glued to their TVs watching blowouts involving teams in which they would otherwise have no interest. And the NFL knows this, of course. It raised no objections for many years as Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder educated Americans on point spreads.

James Hosker, president of the association that represents state lotteries, said: "The professional sports leagues have long been aware of extensive wagering on their games, have taken virtually no action to prevent it, have frequently acquiesced in it and, in fact, have benefited from it."

What makes the leagues' anti-gambling arguments so preposterous is that illegal sports betting already exists on such a massive scale that is hard to see how legalized wagering would suddenly taint the sports. Every stadium today is heavily populated with people who have spiced their interest with a wager, but that has hardly taken the fun or the sport out of football.

Not since Prohibition have Americans so readily engaged in an illegal activity as they do with sports betting today. The most upright citizens don't hesitate to telephone a bookmaker -- even though they may suspect or know that the bookie has ties to organized crime. Experts estimate that illegal sports betting is a $40-billion-a-year industry -- and one that is growing steadily.

Under the cirumstances, it would seem inescapably logical for cash-strapped state governments to legalize sports betting and let the revenue from it flow to legitimate purposes instead of criminals. (This is essentially what the states did when they created lotteries and virtually eliminated the illegal numbers game.)

Taking the opposite course is inexplicable. Even in a climate in which most citizens don't give their legislators credit for having any sense, it is amazing to see Congress eager to pass a law that would give organized crime a virtual monopoly in a multibillion-dollar business.

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