Newsflash: there's gambling in sports; time to regulate, not ban it

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Our four major pro sports leagues and the NCAA are suing New Jersey to block legalized sports wagering in that state. What a relief. I was really worried people would start gambling on sports.

When it comes to gambling, our major sports leagues act like you can stop the rain by closing your eyes and thinking really hard about sunshine. They say betting on sporting events should be illegal, but that is preposterous: Legal sports gambling happens in this country every day, in a place that my sources call "Las Vegas."

And illegal sports gambling happens everywhere, all the time. You can bet on almost anything, anywhere as long as somebody will take the action. I'm sure that last winter somebody bet that Dwight Howard would get traded to Brooklyn, and somebody else bet that Dwight Howard would go to the Lakers, and somebody else bet he would will end up in Dallas, and it is quite possible that all three of these somebodies were Dwight Howard, but that's not the point. The point is that gambling is as widespread as air.

The people who run our sports leagues know this. They are not stupid. In private moments, many of them will admit that gambling has been great for business. They are in the business of making money, getting people to watch and conducting sporting events --- in that order of priority. They need people to watch so they can make money, and they need to conduct sporting events to get people to watch. Gambling gets people to watch. It's a huge boon.

And yet ... they are terrified of saying this. They are terrified because the worst thing that can happen to any sports league is a point-shaving scandal.

The fear is, at once, absolutely valid and completely misguided. A point-shaving scandal would be the worst business development that could happen to any sports league. It would mean the leagues are not really conducting sporting events, which makes you wonder why anybody would watch, which would put their ability to make money at risk. The legitimacy of the whole operation would be in question.

Everybody worries about a modern-day version of the Black Sox scandal. But this is where the worries are misguided. We are not living in 1919 anymore. You may have been tipped off to this by the fact you are reading this on the Internet. Star players make millions of dollars and are therefore unlikely to let a few grounders go through their legs because gamblers paid them to do it.

Of course, athletes can still Sprewell themselves into financial ruin. But they generally don't do it until they retire, and anyway, the money is so good now that athletes can make far more money by playing well than by throwing a game. A quarterback who fixes a game would have to throw some seriously, SERIOUSLY costly interceptions; completions would mean millions.

Could it happen? Yes, sure. Any combination of strange circumstances is possible. But it's highly unlikely, and more importantly: This is a reason to legalize gambling.

If we legalize gambling, we can regulate it. We can monitor it. Experts can track gambling activity to look for suspicious patterns. Casinos can help law-enforcement authorities, even tip them off, because it will be in their best interest to do so. Game-fixing hurts the honest bookmaker.

If you have trouble wrapping your mind around that hypothetical scenario, guess what: It's not hypothetical. This is exactly how the world found out about point-shaving schemes involving the Arizona State men's basketball team in the late 1990s and, more recently, the Toledo football team.

(Those scandals, by the way, are why the NCAA is so vulnerable. The NCAA refuses to pay its players, and won't even allow them to accept third-party payments from sponsors. Many of those players are poor, and very few are rich. Unlike the pros, college athletes can improve their financial situation significantly by fixing games.)

I suspect sports leagues are so scared of legalized gambling because they have been scared for a long time, and their scared faces are frozen. People generally don't change unless they need to change -- and -- sports leagues don't need to change. The last 40 years have been quite good to them.

Still, these leagues would be wise to step back and use a little common sense. Legalized sports gambling sounds like a huge threat to truth, justice and the American way. It isn't.