US considers a change in the law to allow gambling on sports

Out of America: Nearly a century after the 'Black Sox' affair, official America is starting to clamour for a slice of the action

Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 30 November 2014 01:00 GMT

America is an odd place, a mixture of libertarianism, licence and puritanism. You can stuff your house with enough guns to equip a mercenary army or join the craziest of sects. You can indulge the right to free speech as nowhere on the planet. Yet you can't have a legal drink until you're 21. And, according to a 1992 law passed by Congress, unless you live in Nevada (read Las Vegas) you virtually can't bet on sport.

Compare and contrast with Britain – the country that exported Puritanism to the US along with the Pilgrim Fathers, but where almost every trace of it has long since vanished. Not a high street is without a betting shop, where you can put a tenner on your favourite football team scoring the first goal or on the fortunes of US teams playing strange, non-Brit sports 5,000 miles away. And if you don't fancy an excursion to the high street, you can place your bet by mobile phone or even with the TV remote.

Not in America, though. It's not that the locals don't like a flutter. Casinos are everywhere, in 46 of the 50 states, from the gambling mecca of Vegas to inner cities, garden suburbs, riverboats and Indian reservations. You can play the slots with quarters or stake your pay on a hand of blackjack or a spin of the roulette wheel.

But as far as sport's concerned, there's only Nevada – or a medley of shady offshore websites and dodgy bookies. Yet vast numbers of people are evidently prepared to take the risk. The turnover of illegal sports betting in the US has been estimated at around $400bn (£260bn) a year – and, not surprisingly, official America is starting to clamour for a slice of the action.

In a way, the aversion to legalised sports betting is understandable – not just a remnant of Puritanism, but a legacy of, arguably, the biggest sporting scandal in history. Imagine that the FA Cup final was fixed. Impossible, you will say, even in an age when criminal Asian betting syndicates are extending their poisonous tentacles into sports worldwide. Yet the equivalent happened in the US in 1919, when gamblers fixed baseball's World Series, the showcase event of what was then the country's showcase sport.

The memory of the "Black Sox" scandal, when players of the Chicago White Sox were bribed to lose games, still haunts not just baseball but all the big American pro-sports leagues. Even now, a poster warning that any dealings with gamblers will lead to a ban for life is displayed in every major league baseball clubhouse.

As recently as the early 1980s, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, two of the game's greatest ever players, were banned: not for betting or passing on inside tips to gamblers – but for taking jobs as greeters at casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. These days, doping with steroids and addictive painkillers, domestic violence and traumatic head injuries, especially in football and ice hockey, are the true problems of American sport. Almost quaintly though, gambling remains the ultimate sin.

Nearly a century has passed since the Black Sox affair, and the age of Damon Runyon and his characters Harry the Horse and Nathan Detroit is long gone. Gambling is now a largely computerised big business; casinos are a major employer and vital source of revenue for many states.

Sports betting may soon catch up with this changed reality. Until now the biggest opponents of legalisation have been the pro leagues, under the mantra of "preserving the integrity" of their sport. But even this stance has been laced with hypocrisy.

You may not be able to bet on real games, but you can on the "fantasy leagues" supported by the various sports – even though these leagues are based on the real-life, anything-but-fantasy, performance of players, and thus theoretically susceptible to the very corruption their promoters claim to fight. Indeed, fantasy leagues were specifically exempted from a 2006 law passed by Congress that clamped down on offshore internet gambling.

Now the dam is crumbling. New Jersey has long been pressing to join Nevada as a site for legal sports betting, not least to boost the fortunes of floundering Atlantic City, where four casinos have shut this year alone. Governor Chris Christie, a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, has signed into law a bill to that effect, and New Jerseyites support the measure by a six-to-one margin (so much for Puritanism in the land of Tony Soprano).

The law predictably came under instant challenge from the major sports leagues: American football's NFL, baseball's MLB, hockey's NHL, and the National Basketball Association. Then Adam Silver, the NBA chief executive, or commissioner, this month dropped his bombshell.

Writing in The New York Times, Silver came out in favour of legalised sports betting. Gambling, he noted, has become a popular form of entertainment. That Las Vegas odds on games are now published in the mainstream press, he argued, proves that people want to bet. He opposes the specific law passed in New Jersey, but urges Congress to adopt a legal framework within which individual states could pass their own laws.

Thus betting on sport would be brought in from the cold, "into the sunlight" where it can be monitored and regulated. Silver wants these nationwide rules to include obligatory and instant reporting of suspicious fluctuations in odds; a national standard for the licensing of bookies and betting organisations; checks to keep minors from betting; and a mechanism to weed out those with a gambling problem and to educate people about how to bet responsibly.

Prohibition didn't stop Americans drinking, and the on-going "war on drugs" has not stopped America from having the highest rate of illegal drug consumption on Earth. By every indication, the ban on sports gambling has been similarly futile. Blame it on the Puritans or whomever. It's time for it to go.

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