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Traveling a Dubious Road

February 05, 2003

The Women's National Basketball Assn. has gone for a desperation three-pointer -- selling its defunct Orlando, Fla., franchise to an Indian casino in Connecticut, which will hold 16 of the team's 17 home games on casino grounds this season. The WNBA says this is OK because the Mohegan Indian tribe has no sports betting book. Its $790-million monthly take comes mainly from slot machines.

The battered league prefers to focus attention on its CPR for the team: the tribe's 10,000-seat arena and Connecticut's rabid basketball fans. Oh, and the casino offered more than other bidders. Fine. Swell.

But precedents are important. Often with voter approval, legal gambling has moved across this land with mounting speed from an isolated desert state to New Jersey to government-sponsored lotteries to riverboats to massive vacation-entertainment complexes such as the Mohegan Sun (you'll never guess the sunny name of the new team). Quietly, California has become second only to Nevada in gambling.

With each step, the successful argument for more gambling is economic development, often helping a hard-luck group or area benefit from the industry's presumed economic bonanza. And lotteries are government's favorite kind of levy: an optional tax.

Sports are grand, spontaneous, often suspenseful and exciting live entertainment in a pre-programmed world of tape and special effects. Pro wrestling aside, sports' credibility relies on its perceived integrity. The National Football League, for all its faults and excesses, gets that. Its rules clearly prohibit involvement in any gambling activity and ownership by gambling-related interests. Indeed, the NFL even nixed a nongambling TV commercial for Las Vegas during the recent Super Bowl.

Other less financially secure, and therefore more desperate, leagues are sniffing around the fragrant fringes of gambling. The National Hockey League allows two Canadian teams to draw money from a provincial lottery. And the Calgary Flames have floated a plan to build a casino within the onetime Olympic Saddledome to attract the customers its losing team can't. Now, the Mohegan Sun will play at the Mohegan Sun.

Why the fuss? Given the spotlight on such a perilous precedent, this one might work out honestly. Casino patrons can take a break from losing by watching hoops. The athletes, who average $46,000 in annual salary, may be as pure as rural Connecticut's air. It's only a game. Who opposes helping women and Indians? And after all, one casino owning one pro team is only one more little step down gambling's golden trail. What are the odds of that meaning anything more down this familiar road?

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