Legal Sports Gambling Examined

This week Delaware's highest court cleared the way for legalized sports gambling. It would join Nevada as the only states where the practice is legal. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis talks about the impact gambling has on sports and why the National Football League is against Delaware's move.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Delaware could soon be a little bit more like Las Vegas. This week, the state Supreme Court upheld a law passed by the state legislature to help alleviate a budget crunch. It would legalize sports gambling. Officials hope to have betting in place by the start of the National Football League season in September. And joining us is our regular Friday guest, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hello, Stefan.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): Hey, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, tell us what Delaware is proposing to do.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, they're calling it a sports lottery to comply with the state's constitution. But it's a straight-up gambling on games. The current plan is for three ways to bet. Pick a winner of an NFL game based on the point spread - the betting line that's established by casinos - predict the total scoring in an NFL game based on another betting line and then there are parlays - combinations of games involving those forms of betting. The state said it hopes to raise about $55 million a year and help cut into a projected $800 million budget deficit.

NORRIS: Now, explain something. We've got gambling in casinos and on Indian reservations and at race tracks, but gambling on sports is heavily restricted. Explain the discrepancy.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, sports gambling was banned by Congress in 1992 in all states except ones that had some form of wagering starting in 1976 - and those were in Nevada, obviously, Oregon, Montana and Delaware. Oregon got out of the business to stay in the good graces of the NCAA and host college sports tournaments. Montana hasn't had much sports gambling.

Delaware was included because of a short-lived football lottery that it had in 1976. The state's constitution does ban all gambling except lotteries that are used to raise money for the state. So what the Supreme Court ruled was that the new plan constituted a lottery on the grounds that chance is the dominant factor in the proposed games.

NORRIS: Now, the National Football League, and I imagine a lot of gamblers might take issue with the idea that betting on sports is mostly chance.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, and the NFL already has. It sued Delaware in 1976 and lost. And it's opposed the new Delaware law. And it might sue again, which brings us to one of the great arguments in sports - legal and illegal sports gambling is rampant. It boosts interest in leagues, especially the NFL, because there are so few games in a season, because scoring is very betable - not too high, not too low - and because there's lots of information for betters to try to analyze.

Is it chance? Well, if it weren't chance, casinos wouldn't make so much money. The real issue for the NFL is that gambling threatens the integrity of the game. As the NFL's commissioner, Roger Goodell, put it in a letter to Delaware's governor, Jack Markell, state-sponsored betting adds to the pressure on our coaches and players and creates suspicion and cynicism toward every on-field mistake that affects the betting line.

NORRIS: Stefan, do you buy that line of argument, that it creates suspicion and cynicism?

Mr. FATSIS: Sure. I don't think leagues can argue any differently. They don't have a choice. We've seen gambling scandals in sports. Just this month, six former basketball and football players at the University of Toledo were charged in federal court in connection with an alleged point-shaving scheme. And there was, of course, the former NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, who went to prison after admitting he bet on NBA games. Interestingly, though, no other leagues have followed the NFL in opposing the Delaware law.

NORRIS: Is there a whiff of hypocrisy here?

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, there is. Look, point spreads are discussed on ESPN, which has a multi-billion dollar contract with the NFL. And the NFL recently allowed its teams to enter into sponsorship deals with state lotteries. Now, the league argues that that's okay because the outcome of games isn't involved, but this is about perception. Gambling is very bad on the one hand, but lotteries are okay on the other. Sure, there are nuances, but given the NFL's stance here, I think a brighter line might be in order.

NORRIS: Thank you, Stefan, have a good weekend.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That's Stefan Fatsis. He joins us Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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