Delaware draws fire of moralists over sports betting

Aug 11, 2009 5:04 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Apparently, sports betting root of all evil

Today’s sports quiz: if you were running any of the nation’s four major sports leagues – the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League – and you wanted help in Washington in knocking sports betting out of the box in Delaware, to whom would you run for help?

If you answered senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jon Kyl of Arizona you win the first round. These two pious defenders of the faith and self-appointed guardians of the nation’s morals leapt eagerly into the fray. Delaware, as you probably know, is one of only four states in the union grandfathered from the sports betting ban – the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, known as PASPA – that Congress passed in 1992. It is the only one east of the Mississippi, the others being Nevada, where sports betting is a way of life; Montana, where it got underway again only recently; and Oregon, which abandoned it after 18 years so it could host a round of March Madness in basketball.

That situation came about because the NCAA, which guards the nation’s college athletes from temptation, will not allow any of its tournaments to be held in sports betting states. They recently invoked that threat against Delaware, notwithstanding that there are few NCAA events worth noticing in the First State, and the state university’s Blue Hens will not collapse without NCAA tournaments.

Getting back to the solemn, stiff-backed Hatch and the deeply ambitious Kyl, which is painful, they fired off a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to do battle with the terrorists in Delaware, who are threatening to shatter the integrity of sports in America and turn the nation’s athletes into instruments of destruction.

Their letter to Holder said, among other things, "Sports betting threatens the integrity of the pastimes our citizens enjoy and the nature of the games they follow," and they asked him to closely follow "the events in Delaware to prevent any violations of federal law… because sports betting threatens to greatly expand sports gambling and undermine the integrity of our national pastimes."

Those events included a lawsuit in federal court by the leagues and NCAA to block introduction of sports betting on grounds that Delaware plans to allow betting on single games, which it did not do in its brief unsuccessful experiment in the 1970s.

At issue is whether betting single game spreads is chance or skill. If they are ruled skill, Delaware could lose.

The federal judge who heard the injunction appeal refused to issue it, and hearings will not begin until after sports betting gets underway, which Delaware hopes will be with the opening of the NFL season next month.

Delaware’s neighbors in Maryland, guarding their purity and profit, joined the fight. The speaker of the house, Michael E. Busch, put it bluntly: "Delaware would be able to offer something that other states (read Maryland) can’t. That would give them a marketing tool that nobody else would have. You attract families in which the husband likes to bet on sports games and the wife likes to use slot machines."

Perish the thought.

The idea of the pro sports leagues and the NCAA as guardians of morals in America is humorous and hypocritical, as newspapers far and wide have pointed out.

Nevada is still standing, its citizens safe, with slots extending from McCarran field – a casino with escalators, baggage claim and a busy taxi line – to as far as the eye can see, and beyond.

Is there a business in this country without an office pool on the Super Bowl or World Series or March Madness? Have those events been corrupted or corrupting? Are the athletes depraved and tempted? If they are, the four leagues and NCAA know full well they can’t do much about it, except preach and, in little Delaware’s case, sue.

They know that this time Delaware is avoiding its earlier mistake of not offering single game betting, and they also know that if Delaware gets it this time around it could be successful.

I doubt that either Hatch or Kyl took up their moral cudgels without urging or appeals from the leagues.

The governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, approached the controversy clearly and low key. "We’re trying to generate revenue and jobs for Delaware," he said through a spokesman.

They plan to do it with spread bets on individual games, over-unders on total single game scores and parlay lotteries, which involve over-unders on multiple games and were shunned by players 32 years ago.

The fun part lies ahead. And we’ll find out how far Attorney General Holder will go in listening to Orrin Hatch and Jon Kyl on this latest threat to the nation.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein