Sports Betting: The Pros vs. the Amateurs By Deborah M. Figart

On August 11, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the right call when he vetoed the Legislature’s bill (S2250) to move forward with sports betting in New Jersey. The Governor’s veto was spot-on for two reasons—though not exactly the same reasons he cited. One has to do with the implications of flouting federal law. The other has to do with the treatment of amateur versus professional athletes.

First, flouting federal laws. In his public statement, Governor Christie noted that sports betting is contrary to the 1992 federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), that bans sports betting in all states except those four that authorized it prior to 1992: Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon. According to the American Gaming Association, Nevada is the only state that is actually placing sports bets in casinos. (The other three states have experimented with sports lotteries.)

Under PASPA, New Jersey had the opportunity to be “grandfathered in” with a special loophole designed explicitly with Atlantic City in mind. The federal law gave states with a ten-year history of casino gambling up to a year to jump in and authorize sports wagering. Meeting the 1993 deadline would have required an amendment to the state constitution, but the effort was stalled in the State Assembly. The one-year window was lost. Any attempt to institute sports betting now would, as the Governor made clear, violate federal law.

Of course, states scoffing federal laws is becoming a trend, starting with states that are ignoring federal drug laws. Beginning with California in 1996, twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have authorized marijuana to be dispensed for medical purposes.  Colorado and Washington have gone a step further and legalized marijuana for recreational use. Such sidestepping of the Controlled Substances Act (1970) is taking the “states rights” stand too far. It undermines the fabric that knits us together as a nation and sets a dangerous precedent.

But don’t assume that I am opposed to the medical and recreational use of marijuana. Quite the contrary. The federal legalization of marijuana, like the passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that repealed the 18th Amendment prohibiting sale of alcohol, would be a boon to our sluggish economy.

The U.S. alcohol industry contributes over $400 billion to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and supports million of workers. One economic study estimates that legalizing marijuana could add over $100 billion to GDP. Analysis by the Tax Policy Center suggests that legalized marijuana could add $9 billion per year to federal and state tax revenues.

So while states have been great laboratories for experimenting with a range of important legislative reforms—from the early minimum wage laws in the 1910s to marriage equality a century later—these initiatives were pursued within parameters set by federal law and Supreme Court rulings. The sports betting initiative just isn’t comparable. And once New Jersey adopted the practice, would other states have eventually followed us in skirting federal law? Which law would be next? The Civil Rights Act of 1964?

The second reason Christie was correct in vetoing sports betting in New Jersey is that the proposal did not differentiate between professional and amateur athletics. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I amateur athletes have recently stepped up their complaints over the way that some universities make money off of their performance as well as their names and likenesses. Think about all that ticket and television revenue, plus football and basketball jerseys and other memorabilia sales. Protesting their treatment (are scholarships and per diem travel monies enough?), Northwestern University football players have sought to form a labor union. This past April, the players cast secret ballots in an official union recognition election. Results are not yet public.

The NCAA is officially opposed to wagering on college sports. I agree. Amateur players do not get paid. Creating a business based on amateur athletes, on top of universities taking in revenue from their performances, is a line we should not cross. I love completing my March Madness basketball brackets for women’s and men’s teams. We should encourage informal pools of friendly competition and fantasy leagues. I applaud the college players who are standing up and questioning the money being made off of their backs and I applaud the NCAA for looking into what they can do to improve the living standards of these players.

But let’s draw a line with sports betting. Allow wagering on professional sports, not amateur sports. Amateurs are competing for the love of the game, the collegiality, and the leadership-building skills —and, yes, college scholarships, too. Only a handful will garner opportunities for professional careers. Pros are paid (relatively) handsomely in individual and team sports, from their earnings/winnings and from endorsements. Professional athletes have agents. They understand that it is a business. Sports betting can be a part of that business.

So no sports betting in New Jersey for now. The governor is straightforwardly accurate to accept federal law. Indirectly, though, the decision to stop sports betting in its tracks also allows us to pause and reconsider wagering on professional versus amateur sports.