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With Gambling Already so Prevalent, Why Not Allow Legal NFL Betting?

8/25/09 - Providence Journal - View Source

By Jim Donaldson

Contrary to popular perception, the National Football League is not opposed to gambling.

For proof of that, look no further than a few miles up Route 1 to Foxboro, where your New England Patriots have enthusiastically partnered with the Massachusetts State Lottery to market a scratch ticket costing $5 for a chance to win a million.

"We are proud," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said earlier this month in announcing the deal, "to team up with the Lottery in a partnership that will not only reward our game winners with cash … but will also benefit cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth."

The odds of winning that $1 million are, according to the Lottery's website, 1-in-3,024,000, which are only slightly higher than the chances the Bills, who have lost 11 straight to New England — and 16 of the last 17 — will beat the Patriots in the season opener Sept. 14.

But heaven forbid that any Pats fans plunk a few dollars down on the outcome of that game.

While the NFL couldn't care less if you gamble — and, in the case of state lottery tickets, actively encourages its fans to do so — it is vehemently opposed to people gambling on its own games.

Hence the league's delight when, on Monday, a federal appeals court blocked Delaware casinos from joining their bookmaking brethren in Las Vegas from accepting wagers on individual NFL games.

The NFL is not alone in its opposition to the expansion of legalized bookmaking on major sports events. The NBA, MLB and NCAA all are in agreement that betting on their games is bad.

The reality, of course, is that hundreds of millions are wagered each week on NFL games — much of it illegally, either through Internet sites or a local, ahem, sports accountant — and significant amounts also are bet on baseball, the NBA and college football and basketball.

On Super Bowl Sunday, bets are even placed on which team will win the pre-game coin toss.

So why not — if, in these trying economic times, we truly want to "benefit cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth" and all across America — allow Delaware, and any other state with a casino, to accept wagers on sports events?

It's common practice in Great Britain and Ireland, where bookmaking is legal and bookmakers are plentiful.

Fans there are passionate, not only about horse racing, but also about soccer, and rugby, and golf, and Gaelic games, and also such things as whether Prince William or Prince Henry will be the first to marry — in short, anything upon which a wager can be placed.

While there have been some fixing scandals — just as there have been point-shaving scandals in college basketball in the U.S. over the years — the integrity of European sports has not been irreparably ruined, nor has the social fabric of Ireland, Scotland, England or Wales been rent asunder.

What some people don't realize is that it is in the best interests of the bookmakers that the games be played honestly. They would be as keen as anyone to detect and monitor suspicious betting patterns.

And the fact is that people are going to bet on sports.

Americans love to gamble. They flock to Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Indian casinos from coast to coast. The daily lottery number is flashed across television screens each night.

If gambling is such a horrible thing, then why are keno screens commonplace in convenience stores and even family restaurants?

"Sorry, kids — Mommy can't talk right now. Eat up and keep quiet while Daddy and I watch to see if our numbers come up."

As entertaining as NFL games are, there is no question that part of the popularity of the sport is because so many fans bet on it.

Because they do, it makes financial sense for states to garner revenue from the business taxes paid by the betting shops, and perhaps also even on winnings over a certain amount, although that would likely drive big bettors to offshore Web sites or their local bookie.

Legalized betting wouldn't eliminate the unofficial "entrepreneur," who may extend credit — although woe be to him who doesn't at least ante up the weekly interest payments on funds owed — and certainly won't be deducting taxes from any winnings.

But most people likely would prefer to wager in the pleasant setting of a legal bookmaker.

Consider this passage from Bill Barich's recent book, A Pint of Plain — Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub:

"The bookies . . . are not devious types who operate from a dingy dive. Instead, they're often corporate titans, and their shops can be ritzy. Boylesports, where I placed a bet on the 3 o'clock race at Naas, was so bright and merry that the staff might have been handing out free, 20-Euro bills. The doomed gambler of yesteryear — unshaven, in a stained trenchcoat, trying to cash a rubber check — was nowhere to be seen. In their nifty uniforms, the young women cashiers could be mistaken for the cabin crew on a plane."

Most states, Little Rhody and neighboring Massachusetts among those in the forefront, are eager to cull gambling dollars from their willingly — even eagerly — complicit citizens, who spend millions each week on lottery tickets. Try to imagine how desperate Rhode Island's already-dismal budget situation would be if not for gambling revenues.

There clearly, then, is no moral objection on the part of government to the "evils of gambling." Obviously, the NFL isn't opposed to gambling, either. Perhaps a new contract for Vince Wilfork depends upon whether Bob Kraft purchases a lucky scratch ticket.

If you can buy a Patriots lottery ticket, then you ought to be able to bet on the Patriots to beat the Bills — not just in Nevada, but in Delaware and Rhode Island, too.

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