Supreme Gamble: The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act

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During a presidency that presents us with almost a daily disaster, another debate rages in the background. Just before the start of the NFL season, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the New Jersey case alleging that the state should be able to legalize sports gambling. An initiative spearheaded by Governor Chris Christie, lesser courts have ruled against him, but this October, the Supreme Court will rule on the case.

What would this mean? Curranty, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act or PASPA is a federal ban on sports gambling in all but four states that were grandfathered in: Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana. It was enacted in 1992, but the appeal will have much wider reaching effects than just sports gambling: it will change the way the constitution is interpreted.

State Powers

Many states argue that PASPA is unconstitutional: the constitution essentially grants states all rights not explicitly granted to the Federal government, and gambling regulation falls into that category.

Why do states care about this particular issue? There is big money in sports gambling, as illustrated by Nevada and the Las Vegas sports books. This is especially true of states that are in financial trouble like California. In August 2010, Senator Roderick Wright announced that he was in favor of the New Jersey lawsuit, and tried to convince the California legislature to sign on to it.

The likely outcome, should the Supreme Court declare the law unconstitutional, is that nearly every state that has a lottery would also authorize sports betting.

Professional Leagues

In October 2016, former NBA Commissioner David Stern called for the repeal of PASPA, reversing his earlier opinion. Current commissioner Adam Silver has warmed to the idea. The reason is that with the current salary structure, the incentive for a player to throw a game is small. Most players who could have that kind of impact are making eight-figure salaries annually or are on the way to making that much in future contracts. It’s unlikely that any player would throw away that opportunity for anything a fixer might offer them.

The NFL and Major League Baseball are the same: impact payers are making more than enough to make fixing games a worthless effort. Many worries about sports betting from the past are simply not valid any more, and in addition gambling would offer another incentive for fans to watch. Not to mention gambling is a potential source of revenue for the leagues, who could offer everything from online games (depending on state laws) or sponsorships to sportsbooks, like the English Premier League teams do.

College Sports

The NCAA is fighting the ruling, and for seemingly good reasons, at leastn on the surface. While scholarships are certainly a good incentive for a player not to shave points, the league has significantly more sports over a wider area than any other league. There is no way they can keep an eye on players and officials in every game everywhere.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that those who are going to seek out a vice are going to do it anyway, and the gambling ban has created a thriving black market in addition to the legal gambling in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

The truth is that more legalized gambling puts more eyes on mid and low tier games, something that could help prevent point shaving in those markets. A casino or sportsbook would happily take a large bet on a UNLV or Indiana basketball game, but not on a lesser contest between smaller schools. Not only would the sportsbook worry about game fixing, but they might not be well-informed enough about a lesser contest to risk taking a large wager on it. A large wager against long odds is really the only way a fixer could afford to “fix” the game.

Either way, the NCAA should probably prepare for the fact that legalized gambling is likely to come to pass whether the Court rules against PASPA this October or another case is brought before it later.

The Constitutional Gamble

The final issue comes down to more than just gambling. It comes down to the fact that other laws will be affected. The idea that the Federal government cannot force a state to enact certain policies is the basis of federal government and states working together through a practice known as cooperative federalism. This voluntary arrangement allows Congress to pursue its goals more efficiently and, because states must be induced to participate, it gives them influence in how federal policies are set.

States don’t have to participate, and few would in the future if, once it initially agreed to a policy, Congress could pass a law making the policy permanent regardless of whether the states subsequently rejected it.

If federal officials can force states to implement unpopular policies, they won’t be held accountable for their decisions. Voters will blame state officials for unpopular, costly, or boneheaded policies not realizing that, like New Jersey with its gambling laws, states are powerless to change anything.

It's difficult to give odds on Supreme Court cases, but many feel New Jersey is the favorite. This case could end up being a big win not only for New Jersey, but also the Constitution.

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