Column: Betting it all on gambling reform

Nevada is universally recognized as the gambling capital of the world, a desert oasis where nearly anything goes. Not too far outside Las Vegas, which boasts more than half the world’s largest hotels each replete with casinos that do billions of dollars in business each year, even prostitution is legal. Another nearly universally recognized taboo is permissible among the arid sands of Nevada. It is the only state in the union where wagering on athletics is legal.

In an interesting twist of political and legal history, Congress in 1992 passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act with a peculiar clause. PASPA outlawed gambling on amateur and professional sports and made such conduct a federal crime except in those states which either already allowed such betting or had enacted legislation to do so. In essence, Congress outlawed a practice only in those places where it was already illegal. Rather than actually protecting the integrity of athletics in a society that views its sports stars with the reverence that other societies reserve for deities and that pays its best professional athletes millions of dollars, Congress created a loophole casinos and gambling interests can drive an armored car through – all the way to the bank.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to correct at least partially this aberrant law. The Student Athlete Protection Act, first introduced in the House of Representatives last February, seeks to close the loophole in the case of college and amateur sports because of the detrimental affects gambling on such contests has on student athletes and the integrity of amateur contests. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission recommended such legislation, and its former chairman has asked Congress to act on the several bills floating around both chambers.

If this all began in 1992 and corrective measures were introduced in early 2000, college sports gambling should not still be an issue. The law should have been changed months ago. But the exemption for Nevada remains on the books mainly because of stalling by leaders in both parties. Interestingly, lobbyists for gambling interests have contributed millions of dollars over the years to the very legislators stalling reform efforts.

Other states chose to close their loopholes and join the rest of the nation in condemning the corruption that accompanies gambling on students’ performances, students who do not get paid and have very strict regulations imposed upon them regarding gifts and compensation for their prowess. Because of this, student athletes are particularly susceptible to the enticements of gamblers eager to improve the odds by fixing games through point-shaving schemes and sometimes even engineering a team’s “throwing” a game, or losing on purpose.

An insidious side effect of the exemption for Nevada is that illegal gamblers and bookmakers are able to legally “lay off” their bets in Nevada and thus launder their money or hedge against losing. A bookie takes bets from people in the same city and can then place those bets or his own in Nevada through an intermediary. That way, the winnings take on an air of legitimacy, and the bookie gets a cut for processing the bets, whether they win or lose. The Nevada casinos get their share by keeping the principal from the losing bets. Everyone seemingly comes out ahead as money is illegally shuffled across state lines in a conspiracy to violate the law and undermine an athletic contest.

By allowing conduct in one state and disallowing it in others, legislators are not providing for the equal protection and enforcement of the law. A man in California who bets on a game between the University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Southern California can go to prison if caught, while a man in Nevada wagering on the same game is not exposed to any legal liability.

Certainly no law instantly corrects the problems at which it is directed. More than a simple enactment of legislation is needed to curb illegal gambling. Better enforcement is needed, which means increased appropriations for more federal and state law enforcement agents dedicated to investigating violations of new and existing laws. Officials must redouble their efforts to educate athletes about the dangers of gambling and the potential for wagering on sports to impugn the integrity of the events. Passing this new legislation, though, is a first step that could spur the additional efforts necessary to begin to end the detrimental effects of gambling on athletic events.

College athletes are students first, or so statements from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and member institutions claim. Of course their athletic efforts produce millions of dollars in revenue yearly for their colleges and universities. College coaches receive huge contracts. GW’s own Tom Penders makes more than University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. No one denies college athletics is an industry that survives because of lucrative television contracts and merchandising.

Americans, however, increasingly look to the fields and courts of their educational institutions for inspiration. Something about a young man or woman competing for the joy of sport, for the sheer enjoyment of the game, carries near universal appeal. Such images are the ideal behind the Olympics, youth and high school sports and collegiate athletics. Congress and the American people should act to end gambling on amateur athletics and thus protect the romantic ideal of the purity of the student-athlete.

-The writer is Hatchet opinions editor.

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