Court’s ruling on sports gambling will have unintended consequences

Somebody puts down a wager during the NCAA men’s  college basketball tournament at the Westgate hotel and casino race and sportsbook in Las Vegas in March. Sportsbooks may soon become common across the U.S.
Somebody puts down a wager during the NCAA men’s  college basketball tournament at the Westgate hotel and casino race and sportsbook in Las Vegas in March. Sportsbooks may soon become common across the U.S.

Credit: Ethan Miller

Credit: Ethan Miller

There’s a scene in the movie, “Back To The Future,” when present-day Biff Tannen climbs into a DeLorean time machine to give his younger knucklehead self a copy of “Gray’s Sports Almanac.” This allows young Biff to become a sports wagering savant, win millions, change the course of history, badger poor harmless George McFly and soil the previous idyllic surroundings of Hill Valley with “Biff’s Pleasure Paradise.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re about to travel down that life-imitates-art road after the Supreme Court struck down a law that had outlawed sports gambling in states not named Nevada.

This isn’t to suggest giant halls of Biff-inspired debauchery are about to open up across the U.S., which, come to think of it, at least could solve the abandoned mall problem. But it’s going to change sports. It’s going to change everything. Not necessarily for the better.

Let me start with a story. In 1997, I traveled to Las Vegas to cover the heavyweight title rematch between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. I climbed into a taxi at the airport and the driver, after learning I was in town for the fight, proceeds to tell me on the way to my hotel that the first bout won by Holyfield was fixed. When I asked how he knew this, he laid out the classic gamblers’ conspiracy theory: The casinos and promoters desired to set up the financial bonanza of a rematch, and that wasn’t going to happen if Holyfield lost. So, you know, Tyson threw the fight.

I briefly debated him, but he would hear none of it. He assured me he “knows people” who told him “the real story.” I just assumed he was one of the many who had lost money betting on Tyson in the first fight because that’s generally a soothing rationalization for a gambler’s ego.

This happens in Las Vegas all the time. Should many states adopt laws to allow single-event gambling, it’s going to happen everywhere. But the stories will spread far beyond a taxi driver.

We’ve learned in the sports world, and life, that things most often happen because of money. This will be no exception. The pro sports leagues will scream concerns about their sport’s “integrity,” but they’ll quickly shut up if their lobbying efforts for a 1 percent cut of all wagers succeed.

Athletes will be happy because they’re bound to get a slice of that pie.

Fans will be happy because they’ll have another reason to watch an otherwise boring game if team hasn’t covered the point spread yet. It’ll be a great diversion from real life, like mowing the lawn and actual human contact.

Television executives will be happy because ratings will be higher and leagues will be richer and they can charge more for commercial minutes.

Even the NCAA has suspended its policy that prevented championship events from being hosted in states with legalized sports betting. Hello, Final Four. But it’s all about the student-athletes.

Groucho Marx said, “While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you pick your own form of misery.”

Those words seem appropriate today. If you believe the purity of sport had eroded before, just wait.

If you think there are conspiracy theories now over why a team lost or failed to cover, just wait.

If you think football coaches don’t like answering questions now about unusual strategy decisions that backfire and cost one team a game and a nation of bettors money, you have no idea how bad this could get.

I’m not anti-gambling. I even write the tongue-in-cheek, “Weekend Predictions” column in the fall. The Supreme Court made a well-reasoned decision to throw out the “Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.” The American Gaming Association estimates $150 billion is gambled on sports in the U.S. and that 97 percent of that is done illegally. So the law wasn’t preventing anything, and gambling doesn’t infringe on anybody’s constitutional rights.

But if this thing spreads across the country like many believe, expect an unpleasant ripple effect.

• Gambling scandals in sports could become commonplace, perhaps surpassing those involving performance-enhancing drugs. Most high-profile athletes won’t get involved in game-fixing or shaving points because they don’t need the money. But players near the bottom of the pay scale, fringe athletes and those fighting to extend careers -- like with PEDs -- will be susceptible. It’s too logical to assume otherwise. The temptation to place a bet will be constantly in our face – on the street, on billboards, on commercials. Athletes already break drug rules in hopes of improving performance and signing a lucrative contract. It’s not a leap to think they’ll try to make an extra buck with some perceived inside knowledge, or by influencing the outcome of a game.

• There’s going to be more second-guessing in games than you can possibly imagine. Fans/losing bettors will scream over every missed free throw, every dropped pass, every error, every easy goal. The idea of, “He just made a mistake,” won’t exist. Because nothing happens by chance when there’s money on the line. The NBA was so shaken by charges of game-fixing after a gambling scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy that it started the, “Last two minutes report,” in 2015. It explains officials’ decisions late in games in which teams are separated by three points or less.

• There’s going to be a rise in gambling addictions. Similarly, there were dramatic increases in drug overdoses and deaths when “pain clinics” began to pop up everywhere and dispensed prescription pain killers that were provided to them by revenue-driven and possibly morally bankrupt pharmaceutical companies. The opiate and heroin crisis didn’t begin because people changed. It began because circumstances changed.

This law thrills many. I get it. The thought of watching football games in the fall with something extra on it sounds like fun. Ratings will go up. The AGA commissioned a study in 2016 that found while bettors consisted of only 25 percent of the NFL's total TV audience, they accounted for 47 percent of all minutes viewed. That's a staggering discrepancy.

Local governments like those here in Georgia see gambling as the means to an end, economically. Georgia House economic development and tourism chairman Ron Stephens has pushed for luxury casinos in the state. Stacey Evans, a candidate for governor, has pushed for a law allowing gambling so that proceeds could be used to fund college scholarships.

“I am the candidate who will consistently stand up for needs-based aid,” she said.

No comment about Biff.

The NFL’s Raiders are moving to Las Vegas. An NHL team already is there. The Pac-12 has held its men’s basketball tournament there for six years. Sports and gambling have been wed on some level for a while.

But this next step will be huge. While everybody is counting their money, don’t be surprised when there are unintended consequences.

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