While the sport of athletics may be irrepressible, it is just as fair to say it is hardly flourishing. For decades, the sport has been caught in a netherworld between its amateur past and a never-quite-professional present, all the while fighting a losing PR battle in the war against performance-enhancing drug use and the corruptions in governance that accompany such a vast extra-national aggregation of players, agencies, events, and federations. To the general public, PED use has spread like an acrid stain over actual performance as the defining characteristic of the athletics’ game, though it may be no less prevalent than in many other sports.
Within the industry itself, there have been innumerable symposia searching for a solution to the sport’s public image problem. And though strides have been made in the short rein under Sebastian Coe’s leadership of the IAAF, a lasting resolution still remains down the track. Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court may have offered a saving, though not ideal, grace.
As reported by AP, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 today to strike down the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a law barring state-authorized sports gambling. The court’s decision came in a case brought by the state of New Jersey, which had fought for years to legalize gambling on sports at casinos and racetracks in the Garden State. Nevada was the lone state grandfathered in at the time of the 1992 law where a person could wager on the results of a single sporting contest.
“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the court. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own. Our job is to interpret the law Congress has enacted and decide whether it is consistent with the Constitution. PASPA is not.”
With this ruling in hand, New Jersey is set to take bets within a matter of a few weeks at their casinos and race tracks. It has been estimated that as many as 32 other states would likely offer sports betting within a five-year span.
Because gambling remains a mostly black market enterprise, it’s not possible to accurately estimate how much is actually spent per year. But experts suggest that illegal betting in the United States represents a business of $50-150 billion, maybe more. According to research by UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, legal sports betting in Nevada totaled nearly $5 billion last year, with American football — college and professional — accounting for $1.76 billion.
Corruption has long been the bete noir for those espousing the legalization of sports gambling. Such famous cases as the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal, the 1978 Boston College point-shaving basketball scandal and the Pete Rose ban from baseball in 1989 for gambling while managing the Cincinnati Reds are seen as cautionary tales. But gambling advocates are quick to point out that sports’ gambling is already a massive enterprise, meaning games have long been vulnerable to corruption, and that regulation, rather than an outright ban is the best way to address the issue. There are those who advocate for a similar policy in dealing with drug use in sports.
When my wife worked at Active.com while the company was still headquartered in La Jolla, California, the company outing would sometimes be held at the nearby Del Mar race track. Well, nobody in that circle followed horse racing as such or cared one whit about the outcome of the races being run. But they did care about the fiver they had on the #6 horse, and stood rapt along the rail as the horses thundered down the stretch, hoping their horse would come through and pay off.
Yes, gambling can go from a fun, harmless diversion to an unhealthy obsession with serious financial consequences before you know it. And corruption, some say, lies just around the bend when you introduce gambling for we are a weak and easily swayed species. But the restrictions placed on drug use have not proven to be a successful model so far, whether in sport, or society at large. In fact, the prison population in America spiked by over 700% from 1970 to 2013 to over 2.2 million, with nearly 50% incarcerated for drug convictions, mostly involving cannabis. Yet today, marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia as generations turn over and newer, more lenient views on medicinal and recreational drug use are embraced. Times and people’s views change.
Would there be those motivated to cheat or throw races if gambling was introduced into athletics? You can never say never. Would unsavory characters suddenly find interest in meets and road races? Didn’t they used to hold governing positions in the sport? So ask yourself which is better, to allow the continued slow dissolution of the sport, or to introduce a less-than-perfect-but-now-legal means that might goose interest in a sport in dire need of taking a gamble on its future?
I look forward to any reader’s comments, pro or con.