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Legalizing sports gambling: A safe bet?

Mike Hogan / Opinion Editor

Mike Hogan / Opinion Editor

It’s a familiar scene. A few weeks ago, you were gearing up for March Madness. As tip-off approached, you argue with your friends, family, classmates, coworkers and anyone else who would listen about your favorite team. You picked upsets, you belittled favorites, you made compelling arguments for the superiority of one team over another. Or, maybe you weren’t that informed or invested, but you still got swept up in the excitement and the constant conversations. And at the end of the day, you filled out a bracket, and hey, maybe you put a few bucks in the office pool, just to have some skin in the game.

Sound familiar? If so, then you may have broken the law.

A March 21 article in Forbes by Marc Edelman argues that NCAA betting pools likely violate a number of state and federal laws. These laws apply not just to the NCAA tournament, but to the majority of sporting events, from the World Series to the Olympics.

Yet most states have authorized other forms of gambling, such as lotteries and casinos. Even some sports are apparently exempt from these laws; betting on horse races is legal in many states. How is a horse race different from other sporting events? The law cites the fact that the outcomes of sporting events are largely unpredictable, even by the so-called “experts.” This applies equally to the Preakness and to the PGA tournament, so why is it legal to bet on one and not the other?

Perhaps it’s because our culture has created a certain aura around sports figures. Sports are supposed to be noble endeavors, undertaken for the love of the game and the pursuit of perfection. Gambling, on the other hand, has traditionally been viewed as sinful, at least according to the old Puritan ethic that even today underlies many aspects of American culture. To gamble on sports somehow corrupts the ideal images of athletes as role models.

Yet in the age of mass media, this idealization of sports seems rather naïve. Even college athletics are a multi-billion dollar industry. Every year there are hundreds of players who treat their (subsidized) college education as nothing more than a stepping stone to the big money of the big leagues. Clearly many athletes  of the most popular sports are in it for more than just love of the game, or even a free education.

Perhaps gambling is illegal in order to avert match-fixing schemes and other moral hazards for those who are involved in the athletic organizations. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s not like sports gambling doesn’t occur in spite of the laws. On the contrary, sports gambling is an enormous industry that manages to be both mainstream and underground.

Wouldn’t this industry be easier to regulate if it were legalized? That way, gambling centers could be monitored, making it easier to keep players, coaches and other insiders away from the betting books.

Finally, sports gambling could be a vast source of tax revenue for state governments. Currently, several states are considering revising their laws against sports gambling, principally for this reason. The old-fashioned moral arguments against gambling don’t hold much weight, especially considering the many precedents for legalized gambling across the country.

Whether it be the Super Bowl, March Madness, the Fall Classic or any other sporting event, the reality is that people all around the country are betting on it. It’s time that our governments recognize that reality — and start to regulate it.

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