Originally Published: November 19, 2014 6 a.m.
Last Thursday in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver came out in favor of legalizing gambling on professional sports. Talk about a bombshell.
Silver's comments were in stark contrast to the decades old position of his league, which is mirrored by other professional sports leagues in this country. In 1992 the leagues lobbied Congress to pass the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) which prohibited the adoption of legalized sports betting in all but the four states - Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana - where it was legal at the time. Just last month, the NBA joined MLB, the NFL, and the NHL in a legal challenge to block the state of New Jersey from implementing sports betting at casinos and racetracks.
What changed in a month? The answer is probably very little. Silver went to work for the NBA, ironically, the same year that PASPA was passed. He served the league in a variety of roles before ascending to the post of commissioner in January. Silver's long time boss, David Stern, was perhaps the most vocal of sports league commissioners in campaigning against legalizing sports betting, and rightfully so. Under Stern, the NBA regularly fended off rumors of game fixing by players and referees. One rumor proved to be true. In 2007, referee Tim Donaghy went to prison for his role in a gambling scandal. Donaghy admitted to accepting money from professional gamblers in exchange for inside tips on NBA games, including ones he refereed.
That wasn't the worst of it. In an attempt to obtain a lighter sentence, Donaghy claimed that the league encouraged refs to manipulate games via their calls - and non-calls - in an effort to boost ticket sales and TV ratings. Stern vehemently denied that the league encouraged such action. He also instituted security measures aimed at preventing a repeat of the Donaghy scandal and to assure a jittery public that NBA games were on the up and up.
In 2009, Silver publicly proclaimed that legalized gambling was inevitable given the globalization of sports leagues, particularly the NBA. Most countries do not share the aversion to sports gambling that exists in the U.S. As Silver pointed out, in England, "a sports bet can be placed on a smartphone, at a stadium kiosk or even using a television remote control." And it's all legal. Silver has never wavered from his statement that the U.S. must follow suit. His op-ed in TNYT was at least the third time this year he has voiced support for legalizing sports betting.
A mere three months after he took office, Silver was gifted with the Sterling scandal that threatened to bring the league to its knees. By every measure, Silver adroitly negotiated the potential pitfalls of the Sterling drama successfully and with aplomb. That success strengthened the commissioner's hand and perhaps emboldened Silver to venture forth once again on the controversial issue of sports betting. It's doubtful that he would have gone out on his own without first informing his owners and obtaining their tacit support. That appeared to be the case when shortly after Silver's comments were published, Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban agreed with the commissioner in an email exchange with CBSSports.com.
If sports gambling is legalized, what's in it for the NBA? Money, buckets and buckets of it. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimates that illegal gambling on sports is a $400 billion annual business. Make it legal, and not only will states and the federal government reap billions in tax revenue, sports leagues will be in line to receive a healthy cut of the action.
Silver says sports betting should be taken out of the "underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated." In that case, suggests Silver, everyone will be better off. It should be noted that the same arguments were used to eliminate prohibition in the 20th century. Similar arguments are being used today to legalize marijuana. But the evidence cuts both ways. Whether you agree or disagree depends on a number of factors.
Regardless of your view, Silver is right on his original premise: Legalized betting on sports in this country is inevitable. And it's much closer to reality today than it was before the commissioner dropped his bombshell.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.