Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck a blow for federalism and states’ rights in its decision to overturn a federal prohibition on sports gambling. In Murphy v NCAA, the Court ruled that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) violated the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution and the anti-commandeering doctrine derived therefrom.

This doctrine recognizes that “Congress may not simply ‘commandeer the legislative process of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program,'” for both political accountability and financial reasons. Thus, states are now free to authorize and regulate (and, sadly, tax) sports betting if they choose to. The case was brought by New Jersey, which objected to the major sports leagues’ desire to limit sports bookmaking to Nevada, and, obviously, New Jersey’s going to leap headfirst into sports gambling. Reportedly, New York legislators will seek to follow suit, and I expect that many other states will as well.

Certainly, this is going to dilute Las Vegas’s share of the bookmaking action, but the real losers in this are the organized crime groups who will now have to compete with legal businesses in sports betting. And, as Las Vegas has clearly demonstrated, mobsters cannot compete with big corporations once they stop enjoying the protections of prohibition and political corruption.

Many Americans view sports gambling, despite its illegality, as, in the words of Don Vito Corleone, a harmless vice. Super Bowl pools, which are legal if all the monies collected are distributed as winnings (yes, the gag is that bars that run them keep some of the money for admission and buffet/drinks on game day, but that’s technically illegal as well, to the best of my knowledge), draw huge participation, as does the NCAA tournament. Many weekend warriors bet on pro and college football, and fantasy baseball/football have added an entire new element to sports gambling. In other words, betting on sports is not generally viewed as an outrage or a scourge, and its prohibition is not something that’s broadly demanded by the populace. This makes PASPA reek of cronyism and protectionism.

We see that even the sports leagues themselves aren’t truly averse, since they sued (and lost) to gain a share of fantasy sports revenue, and since the NFL runs its own fantasy league. This makes vocalized fears of the corruption of the game ring hollow, just as state lotteries make politicians’ vocalized declarations that gambling is corrosive to society farcical.

Besides, legal gambling does not stand in the way of leagues and teams setting rules of conduct for their employees, and any sport that doesn’t clamp down hard on corrupt behavior is a sport that’s going to suffer greatly. Point shaving was a major scandal in the NBA a few decades ago, and Pete Rose remains banned form the Baseball Hall of Fame for committing the cardinal sin of betting on games in which he played or managed (yes, he asserts that he always bet on himself, but that admission was, to the best of my knowledge, part of a compromise, and that leaves me a bit skeptical). A scene from the Burt Reynolds classic The Longest Yard ably makes the point.

Caretaker: Most of these old boys don’t have nothing. Never had nothing to start with. But you, You had it all. Then you let your teammates down, got yourself caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

 

Paul Crewe: Oh I did, did I?

 

Caretaker: Oh I ain’t saying you did or you didn’t. All I’m saying is that you could have robbed banks, sold dope or stole your grandmother’s pension checks and none of us would have minded. But shaving points off of a football game, man that’s un-American.

Yes, gambling has led to the ruin of many, but gamblers have many legal options already (including horse tracks, the aforementioned lotteries, an increasing number of casinos and electronic casinos), as well as some on-line options that skirt the letter of the law. Big money gamblers can also afford to fly to Las Vegas to lay their bets. It’s the little folks who are made into prey for organized crime by prohibition. And, ultimately it’s the little folks for whom the system has the least interest, no matter politicians’ protests to the contrary.

The parallels to other prohibitions and market-skewing taxation schemes (Eric Garner) should be obvious. Where government prohibits a behavior that people wish to engage in, it creates market opportunity for criminals. When it gets out of the way, the black market fades away or disappears entirely. And, with it, goes violence and other crime.

This is how organized crime is undone: by lifting the restrictions and prohibitions that protect its businesses. The lessons of history make this clear, and yesterday’s Court ruling is another big step in the right direction.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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