Legal Sports Betting: The Risk vs. the Reward
Four states had legal sports betting on their books in 1992 when the federal government banned states from the bookmaking business, and grandfathered in existing legal sports gambling in Nevada, Montana, Oregon, and Delaware.
Of those states, Nevada has a thriving sports book business while the other three had various forms of lottery games that involved sports. In May, Delaware attempted to join Nevada and get a piece of the estimated $400 billion that is wagered annually, legally and illegally, on professional and college sports. That attempt was thwarted in August when a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled that sports betting in the First State would violate the 1992 federal ban.
The crux of the appeals court ruling was that Delaware’s 1976 failed sports lottery did not constitute enough of a precedent to allow the grandfather clause of the 1992 law to apply. So, at least for now, legal sports betting in the United States will not grow outside Nevada sports books and various forms of horse and dog racing.
The implications of widespread sports gambling for the African American community are worth discussing. Though the Super Bowl is the most wagered sports event with $10 billion estimated to change hands, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is thought to be second, with an estimated $6 to $7 billion wagered legally and illegally.
While Super Bowl players are in many cases millionaires earning hundreds of thousands of dollars for their playoff runs, NCAA Men’s Basketball players are unsalaried, often without family money, and in some eyes ripe for the taking by gamblers. About three out of four are African American. Are college basketball players in particular apt to be influenced by gamblers, and are college athletes in general at greater risk due to the fact that the payoff for playing college sports is vastly different than the payoff a pro athlete receives from his sport?
Mitch, 52, a regular visitor to Las Vegas sports books during March Madness who played guard for U.C. Irvine’s basketball team in the 1970s, doesn’t think so. “I personally believe it is very difficult for an individual in a team sport to execute a point shaving scam. While it is possible, I do not think the risk warrants future regulation of legal sports betting.”
The facts would seem to bear Mitch out. While there have been intermittent gambling scandals, particularly in college basketball, since about 1950, there has been no increase in known point shaving scandals even as the money wagered has grown exponentially in the last decade.
The last dustup occurred in the early 1990s and involved North Carolina State player Charles Shackleford, who is African American. ABC News reported that during the 1987-88 season as many as four N.C. State players, including forward Shackleford, conspired to hold down the scores of four games in return for cash payments from a New Jersey contractor. According to the report, one of the games was March 6, 1988, against Wake Forest. N.C. State defeated Wake Forest by four points, after being favored by 16. According to Shackleford’s lawyer and agent, Sal DiFazio, Shackleford never shaved points, although he admitted taking $65,000 from two men. Shackelford said the money was a loan.
The notoriety did not affect Shackleford’s pro prospects. He played six NBA seasons with the Nets, 76ers, Timberwolves and Hornets; plus several seasons in Europe. Would an NBA team employ a non-star if the team believed it could not trust him to play honestly?
Jeff, an executive recruiter in Southern California, has played fantasy football and baseball for years and is fluent in the language of point spreads. His point of view is pragmatic and optimistic. “Admittedly, legalization of gambling will make it much more accessible, but the solution does not lie in controlling access. The specter of expanded gambling is an ideal example of one of our greatest challenges (and opportunities) as a society – we need to emphasize the importance of ethical behavior in all aspects of our lives and our activities, and we need to be able to look to our sporting heroes as the example to follow.”
The bottom line: gambling is a fact of life in American society and sports whether legal or illegal. Unpaid, less wealthy, often African American; athletes, in college may be at greater risk, but with a vast majority of games on television, they are also watched more closely than ever. Legal sports gambling is merely a vehicle for states to get a cut during difficult financial times. The risk of players shaving points or throwing games is no greater or less, regardless of whether the action is taxed or part of a black market economy.
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.