Professional sports leagues typically do their best to stay out of controversy, only weighing in on divisive topics when they directly involve the league or public opinion shifts to the point where they're no longer so contentious. It's often just not worth the risk of alienating a substantial portion of the fan base, especially when the organization has the option of waiting to see how the issue plays out.
It has therefore come as something of a surprise to see NBA commissioner Adam Silver look positively (or at least not negatively) on the idea of legalized sports gambling. Silver was quoted as considering it "inevitable" in early September, in a notable break from the approach of his predecessor David Stern.
Silver has now gone a few steps beyond that initial claim. The commissioner came out in support of legalizing sports gambling throughout the United States in a new op-ed for The New York Times published Thursday night. Here is a brief glance at his argument:
For more than two decades, the National Basketball Association has opposed the expansion of legal sports betting, as have the other major professional sports leagues in the United States. In 1992, the leagues supported the passage by Congress of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or Paspa, which generally prohibits states from authorizing sports betting.
But despite legal restrictions, sports betting is widespread. It is a thriving underground business that operates free from regulation or oversight. Because there are few legal options available, those who wish to bet resort to illicit bookmaking operations and shady offshore websites. There is no solid data on the volume of illegal sports betting activity in the United States, but some estimate that nearly $400 billion is illegally wagered on sports each year. [...]
Outside of the United States, sports betting and other forms of gambling are popular, widely legal and subject to regulation. In England, for example, a sports bet can be placed on a smartphone, at a stadium kiosk or even using a television remote control.
In light of these domestic and global trends, the laws on sports betting should be changed. Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards.
These requirements would include: mandatory monitoring and reporting of unusual betting-line movements; a licensing protocol to ensure betting operators are legitimate; minimum-age verification measures; geo-blocking technology to ensure betting is available only where it is legal; mechanisms to identify and exclude people with gambling problems; and education about responsible gaming.
Silver's argument should be familiar to anyone who has encountered centrist cases for the legalization of marijuana — if it's already happening and authorities can't stop it, then why shouldn't we make it legal. While Silver does not put forward every piece of the argument, it boils down to a few key points, including (1) the idea of taxing and regulating commerce so the state and businesses can create revenue and (2) instituting enough safeguards so that a potentially harmful behavior won't become abusive. There are legitimate criticisms of this point of view, like that legalization disproportionately helps already privileged groups and doesn't always benefit society (especially in the case of gambling), but Silver is not blazing trails so much as joining a cause that already exists.
The op-ed is notable almost entirely because of the power Silver wields as commissioner of the NBA. He does not entirely contradict the views of David Stern, but this is a substantial break with past policy. When the NBA opposed New Jersey's legalization bill in 2012 (along with every other major league/organization), it did so with the belief that gambling would be bad for the league. In the op-ed, though, Silver attempts to paint that opposition as based on a technicality related to federal compliance with Paspa.
It's not hard to see why Silver would support legalized gambling. It drives interest in the results of games, whether through more typical wagers or fantasy leagues, and the NBA would stand to benefit from seeing more people with a stake in results. It's also possible that the league would gain power and/or financial benefits by working with gambling regulators.
Yet it's not entirely obvious why Silver has chosen to express his support for legalized sports gambling at this time, when the issue is far from resolved and not so overwhelmingly popular that his stance will be met with widespread support. It remains to be seen what effect his argument will have on the controversy, but it's already very important. Legalized sports gambling has never had a supporter at Silver's level of power within a major American league.
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