The U.S. Supreme Court sharpens the odds of a gambling debate in Georgia

Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley (misses a pass in the end zone during the second half of the College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta earlier this year. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley (misses a pass in the end zone during the second half of the College Football Playoff National Championship in Atlanta earlier this year. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM



Within hours of the Monday decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, overturning a federal ban on bets placed on the outcome of individual sporting competitions, the true cultural impact filtered out of that state just to the west of Alabama.

By the time kick-off season rolls around, one likely will be allowed to place a legal bet at a Mississippi casino on the outcome of the Sept. 8 football game between the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina.

It’s a road game for the Dawgs, so figure that into the spread.

Early voting began Monday, April 30 for Georgia's primary elections.

But like it or not, the Bulldog Nation, the Braves Nation, the Falcons Nation, and the Atlanta United Nation are all about to be wrapped into Gambling Nation, Inc.

Supreme Court justices voted 6-3 to strike down a 1992 law that barred most state-authorized sports gambling. Nevada was the only state allowed by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act to permit betting on the results of a single game.

New Jersey thought that unfair, and won its case over the objections of the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB, and the NCAA. And the SBC, too – that is, the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. That choice falls to Congress, if it wants to or is able to take up the battle.

The National Football League is already punting. Rather than pushing for a repaired but still-complete ban, the NFL has asked Congress to enact a national framework for legalized sports betting. Last year’s tiff with President Donald Trump over players kneeling during the national anthem just had a price tag slapped on it.

On the other side of that same coin, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan last week made a trip to Las Vegas to pay court to billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Federal law prohibits Ryan from soliciting cash, so he walked out of the hotel room while Adelson cut a $30 million check to keep House Republicans in power.

One week later, Adelson’s investment in congressional swampland looks very, very good.

Then there’s the impact of the gambling decision on collegiate sports. Yet another profit center, one worth billions of dollars, has just been sanctioned – and still won’t include the men and women who do the sweating. At least, not if things are to remain on the up and up.

But the most parochial question is whether you and I will soon be able to walk into a local facility and put money down on a ninth-inning rally led by Freddy Freeman and the crew.

Georgia has a provision in its state constitution that prohibits all betting – save for that lottery ticket you buy each week. To remove it would require a November referendum, which couldn’t be scheduled until 2020 at the earliest. After a two-thirds vote by the Legislature.

Then there’s the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision only eight days before the Georgia primaries for governor. The pressure on the Republican field from religious conservatives, to oppose any relaxation on gambling, will be immense. But the Democratic side is something else. Only last week, Stacey Evans said she would support the establishment of casinos in Georgia — to help reverse cuts to the HOPE scholarship.

At minimum, the Supreme Court decision guarantees a more forthright discussion on the topic of gambling when the Legislature assembles next January. “This is something that will interest the members of the General Assembly. They play these fantasy sports,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. “This is going to be a new, big business issue for our General Assembly in 2019.”

Oliver, host Bill Nigut, and I were all talking into microphones at Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters for Monday’s edition of “Political Rewind.” GOP strategist Heath Garrett was at the table, too, and likewise predicted full employment for every Capitol lobbyist able to pin a badge to his or her lapel.

“We’re going to have all fantasy sports groups, which are backed, by the way, by major media institutions in this country, and technology companies. So they’re not just traditional MGMs coming out of Las Vegas,” Garrett said.

Even before the Supreme Court decision, horse-racing and casino interests in Georgia had decided to pool their efforts in 2019 to push for combination “racinos.” In the past, many state lawmakers, including House Speaker David Ralston, have questioned the financial viability of the proposed operations. Monday’s news out of Washington, allowing sports betting, could allow gambling interests to cite one more revenue stream as a mark of stability.

If nothing else, the Supreme Court may have put an end to one charade at the state Capitol.

For the last few years, the closest we’ve come to an expansion of gambling has been the effort mounted by sports fantasy interests. Two years ago, Attorney General Sam Olens declared that Internet websites offering prizes for players in fantasy team competitions were engaged in illegal gambling. Similar rulings were made in other states.

The response by the sports fantasy industry was a state-by-state campaign to have such contests declared to be games of skill rather than chance – an argument that any poker player might also make.

In Georgia, House Bill 118, sponsored by state Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, made it to the Senate Rules Committee this year – but was tabled by that chamber as the session drew to a close.

DraftKings, one of the sports fantasy companies behind the Georgia legislation, had long argued that it wasn't involved in games of chance. But on Monday, the company announced it has a betting "product" ready for its users.

Which brings us back to Mississippi, which may be the only place in the South you may be able to legally bet on an SEC game this September.

Although many didn’t realize it at the time, Mississippi lifted its ban on sports betting in 2017 as part of a bill legalizing and regulating fantasy sports. Which is now proving to be quite convenient.

About the Author

Editors' Picks