Scott MacKay Commentary: Let's Be Careful About Jumping On The Sports Betting Bandwagon

May 25, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court has overthrown a ban on sports betting. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay looks at the pros and cons of allowing states to legalize wagering on sports. 

Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

It’s not only churches that have a vested interest in sin. Governments do too. Politicians like nothing better than the taxes they harvest from gambling, drinking and smoking.

The latest quest for more of this money is sports gambling, once the province of organized crime. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed states to get into the sports betting business, some pols see a new pot of gold.

In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the legislature are taking a wait-and-see approach. Baker wants to study the issue before jumping into the world of taxing point spreads. That’s a contrast to Rhode Island, where Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and General Assembly leaders are already salivating over the money that can be made from those who gamble on teams. Raimondo even placed in her budget a line item of more than $20 million in anticipation of the high court’s decision.

So-called sin taxes allow the pols to get money without raising traditional sales or income taxes on businesses or voters. Gambling is now the third largest source of government revenue in Rhode Island. Raimondo and the Democrats who rule the Assembly want to make it bigger.

Permitting wagers at casinos on professional sports may not be a big deal. The athletes are paid multi-million dollar salaries and gamblers already put down billions illegally every year, particularly on football and basketball. The Tom Bradys and Al Horfords aren't likely to throw games.

Casino executives would love to run sports betting with games projected on huge television screens. Big events, such as the Super Bowl and pro basketball playoffs, would inevitably draw fans. The beers would flow, the cheers would be loud and money would roll in as patrons bellied up to bet. And the state would get its cut.

The very well-paid pro athletes don’t have incentives to tank or throw games. This isn’t the case with college players. Amateurs aren’t paid –not legally anyway—and are more vulnerable than pros.

So let’s say a Division One basketball power is playing a meaningless non-conference game in November. Providence College is playing, say, New Hampshire. The Friars are favored by twenty points. A PC player on scholarship but with no money in the bank gets approached by a gambler who says, “Hey, you’re playing UNH tonight. Here’s 10 grand. Make sure you guys win by less than 20.”

(PC Athletic Director Bob Driscoll said through a spokesman that it is "premature" to comment.)

It’s happened before. Point shaving scandals ruined New York college basketball in the 1950s and led to scandals at Boston College in the 1970s and Tulane University in the 1980s. Sports betting  wasn’t even legal in those days. Don’t think it can’t happen again.

College basketball already has a seamy underside. The FBI is probing illegal payments to players. This investigation has already cost some star coaches their jobs, most prominently former PC coach Rick Pitino, who was bounced from his high-profile perch at Louisville after a pay-to-pay scandal that he insists he had nothing to do with.

Some Rhode Island pols are lining up to take sports betting one step further and allow Internet sports wagering. The most vocal supporter so far is Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, an influential Providence Democrat. He says he will ask the state Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on whether Internet sports gambling meets Constitutional muster.

The Rhode Island Constitution states in clear language that new forms of legal betting require voter approval at both the state and community level. Given the amount of money involved, it’s no surprise that there will likely be vigorous attempts to try to skirt the voter requirements.

In our wired world, it would be tough to regulate Internet betting, particularly keeping kids from spending their lunch money on their favorite teams. And if the casinos draw bettors, what’s to stop sports bars from lobbying to get in on the action?

The best solution would probably be for the federal government to regulate sports betting so there  would be one national standard. Given the gridlock in Washington, that may not be possible. It’s time for the politicians to be transparent and make sure everyone knows the rules before we get into this game.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org