This month, millions of Americans will participate in March Madness—friendly betting pools on the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Men’s Basketball Championship. People from diverse backgrounds and political ideologies will collectively fill out an estimated 70 million brackets. What they share in common is not only a fun pastime, but violating a federal law.
A little known statute, enacted by Congress in the early 1990s, bans states from sanctioning sports betting in any way. Clearly, this has not stopped Americans, from the office janitor to a sitting U.S. President, from spending billions of dollars on illegal sports gambling each year. What it has done is prevent states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware from regulating the activity, enacting consumer protections, and collecting the potential millions of dollars in tax revenue from licensed bookmakers. Worst of all, the law criminalizes the activity of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Rather than propping up this outdated prohibition, it is time for the law to treat adults like adults and recognize that spending our own money on gambling, whether buying a lottery ticket, playing poker online, or betting on a sporting event, is a legitimate means of recreation and a matter of personal choice.
Gambling regulation in the U.S. has been a matter traditionally left to the states. However, by the 1990s, as more than a dozen states considered proposals to legalize sports betting, some in Congress feared the spread of legal sports gambling would promote match-fixing and erode public trust in the games. The upshot was that Congress enacted the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 1992, the statute that barred all states but Nevada from legalizing the activity. Congress justified this unprecedented intrusion into state matters by asserting the harms caused by legal sports betting are felt beyond states’ borders. What they failed to consider was the negative effects of creating an illegal sports gambling market.
As with all forms of prohibition, PASPA did not stop the activity it sought to ban—sports gambling. In 1991, journalist Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post wrote that “not since [alcohol] Prohibition have Americans so readily engaged in an illegal activity as they do with sports betting today.” That was back when the illegal betting market was estimated at a mere $40 billion per year. Today, experts estimate we spend between $140 billion and $400 billion on the activity. Furthermore, despite its name, PASPA created a scenario where match-fixing is more likely to occur and less likely to be spotted.
Throughout sports history, it’s usually bookmakers who spot the signs of corruption before anyone else as betting patterns shift on “fixed games.” Sports leagues in Europe—like FIFA–rely on the gambling industry as an early warning system for possible corruption. This sort of relationship is impossible in the U.S. under the current law. Even if bookies want to sound the alarm about match-fixing, they can’t speak up without fear of prosecution.
Worst of all, not only does the federal ban do nothing to protect consumers, but it prevents states from enacting their own protections. New Jersey has sought for years to circumvent PASPA. Most recently, the state legislature sought to decriminalize sports gambling by repealing its laws that explicitly ban sports betting. Sports leagues, headed by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), sued; arguing federal law—PASPA—prevented the legislature from altering its own laws related to sports gambling. A federal judge agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court may soon hear New Jersey’s appeal.
If the Supreme Court rules in the state’s favor, that would allow states to implicitly decriminalize the activity; however, it might still bind state legislatures from enacting regulations and protections that could be construed as “sanctioning” sports betting. Conversely, should the court rule in favor of the leagues, we would be left in the treacherous position whereby the federal government may commandeer state legislatures that disagree with federal law. No one, no matter what their political affiliation or how they feel about gambling, should want Washington taking that much control away from the states and the people they represent.
Despite the fears of some lawmakers nearly three decades ago, it is clear now that the sports gambling prohibition is not only useless but counterproductive. The federal government’s role in our lives should not be to protect the reputation of sporting events, dictate to adults how they spend their own money, or tell states how they may or may not regulate certain kinds of economic activity within their own borders. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, it is high time for Congress to stop betting against the American people and repeal the ban on sports gambling.