By Martin Owens
Gambling to the Rescue - of Journalism?
"If you only knew the power of the Dark Side!"
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Who would have thought Wicked Gambling - sports betting, yet! - would be touted as the latest thing to Save the American Newspaper? Strange but true. The October 21 edition of The New York Times featured a column by Maureen Dowd, quoting Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of U.S. News and World Report (and the Times' arch rival the NY Daily News), who was urging that Congress allow US newspapers to handle sports bets, so that the extra revenue would redeem them all. He did this, by the way, in an interview for Forbes magazine. If you thought politics made strange bedfellows, just watch what happens when you throw gambling into the mix!
But we have seen this play out before, many times. Gambling is Evil, say the powers that be. Until one day they look around and notice they need more money than they're getting. A lot more . But when times are bad and the voters won't stand for new taxes, then what? Well, then a quiet little deal is struck with the guardians of righteousness. Because everybody knows that gamblers have all the money. The citizens will be allowed to bet on this or that, which they are already doing anyway. Proper supervision is guaranteed. And, most important, The Government Gets a Cut.
This is how the various kinds of gambling have returned from the total prohibition of Victorian times. First as a painless substitute for taxes -- horse racing in the 1920's and 30's, state lotteries in the 60's and 70's. Secondly, as concession to popular charities. Church bingo led to Indian bingo, which led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Who could have predicted tribal gambling would be worth $25 billion today? By the 1990's casinos had come back to Atlantic City and New Orleans, and gambling riverboats plied the waters of Mississippi and even Iowa.
Sports Betting Still Holds Out
But apart from the horses, betting on sports remains taboo. The only exceptions are the Nevada sports books and sports-related lottery contests in Delaware, Montana and Oregon. The leagues that run those sports ( and the college games) are hot to protect their reputation for honesty. And to be fair, there is a lot to protect. The value of all those franchises, concessions, spinoffs, endorsements and broadcast rights totals well into the hundreds of billions. Very serious money rests on professional sports' reputation for honesty.
Fortunately, when American athletes misbehave, it tends to take such forms as DUI or domestic violence. Throwing games is not in their repertoire. At the same time, any honest observer will tell you that the American public is betting on sports anyway, and betting heavily. There is hardly an office building in the country, courthouses included, that hasn't got an office betting pool. Internet sports betting accesses the American market at will, UIGEA or no. A Vegas handicapper of my acquaintance told me that over $8 billion was bet on the 2007 Super Bowl alone - and only about $300 million of that was bet legally, through the Nevada sports books. The rest went to the dark side.
So, goes the argument, hey, why not? The proposal to rescue America's newspapers with sports betting is part of the old tradition - "they're going to do it anyway, we may as well get the money, And it's kind of okay, so long as it's for a Good Cause." Really, what's wrong with that?
Actually, a lot. The isolation of gambling as a scapegoat for the ills of society at large has reached ridiculous lengths. The same Supreme Court that upheld the right to abortion, to sodomy, even to animal sacrifice, still righteously maintains that there is no such thing as - gasp!- a right to gamble. Never mind that the stock market and the housing bubble have ruined more Americans than any hundred casinos put together. But it is equally a mistake to swap tolerance of gambling for a perceived social good. Both sides, pro gambling and anti-gambling, are missing a very important point
If the conservative side of American society goes overboard in condemning gambling as a moral aberration, the progressive side is equally askew when it advances gambling as a source of revenue for all its expensive social panaceas. Extra funding, in fact, may be covering up the real problems. Budget deficits are not caused by lack of gambling, but by governments spending too much. Rather than booking sports bets, our mainstream media need to realize that their decline arises from failure to adapt to a society that has gone digital and interactive . They need to cover blogs and Twitters and Facebook entries, not the point spread on the Chargers.
Gambling should not have to justify itself by how much it contributes to "Noble Causes." The reason that people should be allowed to gamble is not because it supports this charity or that program, but because the people of the United States are free men and women living in a free country, and, within very broad limits, the way they spend their time and their personal funds is none of the government's damned business.
The gambling industry is not composed of Godfathers or Guys and Dolls. It is not the Dark Side, holding mysterious bags of ill-gotten gold. It is a money intensive pastime, run by very shrewd people, who are no more dishonest in their trade than the general run of stockbrokers or bankers, and who have every bit as much need to keep their customers loyal and happy. It is about time we realized that, and treated the phenomenon of the gaming industry neither as society's leper nor its court jester, but in a straightforward and rational manner.
Mr. Owens is a California attorney specializing in the law of Internet and interactive gaming and related issues, serving clients worldwide since 1998. He co-authored INTERNET GAMING LAW with Professor Nelson Rose, America's senior authority on gambling law (Mary Ann Liebert Publishers 2005, second edition just out, 2009), as well numerous other articles. He is an Associate Editor for "Gaming Law Review and Economics" magazine. Comments and inquiries welcome at to firstname.lastname@example.org.