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KURT STREETER

States should get a cut of the sports betting action

With proper controls, legalized gambling could be one answer to fiscal problems.

August 30, 2009|KURT STREETER

Other than my meager efforts in a fantasy football league, I don't bet. Not on football, not on March Madness, not on the World Series. It has just never been my thing. Probably never will be.

But I should be able to bet on a game if I wanted to -- and so should you -- legally, at a sports book in Los Angeles, or anywhere in any of the 50 states.

Unfortunately, if we want to place such a bet and do it on the up-and-up, we've got to go all the way to Nevada, the only state where sports wagering is both widespread and legal.

Nevada is the exception. It should be the rule.

Think about it. By many estimates Americans spend at least $100 billion each year betting on sports. One hundred billion, at least -- only a sliver of which is wagered aboveboard, through Nevada's professionalized network of casinos and bookies.

Our beleaguered local and federal governments can't afford to be stepping from the action anymore. They should be doing what many other countries are: overseeing sports gambling, taxing it, professionalizing its middlemen, and letting us legally play at casinos and as they do all over cities such as London, through bookmakers and betting shops.

Don't tell that to the obstructionists: the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA. They're more than happy to bask in the interest and hype generated by gambling. It's made them what they are. Yet they just rose en masse to stop what could have been an important first step in legalizing sports gambling across the country: cash-strapped Delaware's attempt to become the second state to legalize gambling on individual pro and college games.

Here's the quick and dirty. Delaware, like so many other states, found itself sagging under an $800-million deficit. Gov. Jack Markell knew that his was one of four states exempted from the 1992 federal law banning sports betting on major sports other than horse racing. (Montana, Oregon and, of course, Nevada are the others -- grandfathered in because of their history of sports betting, though Nevada is the only state taking full advantage of the law.)

So Markell moved to make his state Nevada-lite. Under his plan, betting on individual games would be allowed. It would happen at remodeled race track casinos, monitored by the state, and taxed. There'd be new jobs, new tourism and a hefty new source of state revenue.

But the obstructionists protested vehemently in court and in a surprise ruling this week, the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals stopped Delaware's bold plans cold. The state says it will go ahead with a weak-sister form of NFL betting: the parlay, known to bring in far less wagering because the odds are bad. To win you must predict a batch of winners.

What happens in Vegas . . . well, you get the picture.

It's time to give the federal ban the boot. This is one of those deals where the people have spoken through their actions. And the people, tens of millions of them, clearly like the thrill of the gamble. To restrict it simply goes against the wishes of too many.

Sure, there are moral issues involved. Mafia. Gambling addiction. Ugly stuff. Yet somehow they gamble legally on sports in Canada and Britain, just to name two. Yeah, I know, Canada and Britain: high-crime, low-morals, terrible places. Sports betting in those countries, the government overseeing matters and getting a cut, has clearly caused massive ruin. They've even got free health care for every last citizen. But I digress.

The obstructionists say they oppose sports betting because "of the threat to the integrity of the game," according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. He was referring to potential point-shaving scandals. And even the cynicism some might have. Was that late game interception from the 50-year-old Vikings quarterback real, or was the game fixed? We don't already wonder this every once in a while? What would legalization change?

Funny, the NFL has entered licensing agreements with state lotteries. It caters to gamblers by publicizing injury reports. It runs a $179.99 "Official Premium" fantasy game through its website and, in a nod to the fantasy action, shows every last stat from every last third-string tailback on a constant below-screen scroll during its televised games.

Whoops, I forgot, fantasy football -- players divvying a pool of winnings based on performance of their picks -- that's not gambling. And neither, wink, wink, is the lottery.

"The irony is the NFL is built on the back of gambling," says Bo Bernhard, an associate professor of sociology and director of gambling research at Nevada Las Vegas. "It is a sport that is perfect for the wager, which partly explains its incredible popularity. And it's not alone. Without gambling, March Madness would not be what it is, college football would not be what it is . . . you could go on and on."

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