In a 180-degree turn that would make any disciple of the pivot step proud, NBA commissioner Adam Silver reversed decades of league policy on the topic of legalized sports gambling. In a New York Times op-ed published today, Silver concluded:
"[T]he laws on sports betting should be changed. Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards."
The commissioner, who took over for David Stern in February, is now not simply the leader of the NBA, he is the progressive leader among his U.S. sports league peers on this issue. Silver explained that “sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight.” He also noted “times have changed” since then-U.S. Senator and former New York Knick Bill Bradley led efforts to pass the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 1992. The federal statute—PASPA for short—limits sports wagering to Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana.
Silver’s newly-formed position is decidedly unique in top-shelf American sports.
Just two years ago, in a 35-page declaration recently obtained by SI.com and filed at the outset of the on-going PASPA lawsuit between the NBA, NCAA, NFL, NHL, MLB and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, then-commissioner David Stern stated:
"The NBA has repeatedly and consistently engaged in efforts to protect itself against the spread of sports gambling and thereby preserve the unique relationship that the league enjoys with its fans."
Those efforts, which historically involved lobbying and testifying before federal and state legislatures, are now altered. In their place: a Silver-penned blueprint focused on a number of measures (e.g. sharing of suspicious betting line movements, responsible gaming education, age verification and geo-tracking tools, sports book licensing procedures) all bent on ensuring the integrity of the game. Silver knows that exercising every effort to make sure the games are on the level is a desirable end result shared by gamblers, fans, law enforcement, sponsors, and broadcasters alike. Whether Congress takes him up on his architectural plans remains to be seen.
A hint of the NBA’s shift on the sports wagering issue was seeded five years ago. In an interview with SI.com, when David Stern, for the first time publicly, referred to nationally legalized gambling on the NBA as a "possibility" that may be a huge opportunity. Stern concluded his 2009 interview by saying he would "leave the slate clean for my successor" on the topic.
But the slate is not entirely clean.
By questioning the continuing necessity and viability of PASPA—the federal law preventing New Jersey from offering Vegas-style sports betting—Silver may have complicated next week’s hearing before U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shipp. At issue during the November 20 court session: whether the five sports leagues should be granted an injunction preventing certain racetracks and casinos from offering point spreads, money lines, totals and prop bets on a variety of sports, including NBA basketball games. In a ruling last month, the five sports leagues were granted a temporary restraining order barring Monmouth Park—the only New Jersey-based entity with immediate plans to offer sports wagering—from opening its doors. In arguing in favor of the restraint, which is set to expire next Friday, the league plaintiffs claimed that they would suffer irreparable harm if legal sports gambling took place in the state.
A lawyer by training, Silver strategically chose his words with exacting precision. In an effort to mitigate any impact his pen may have on the current legal dispute, he made clear that "[w]ithout a comprehensive federal solution, state measures such as New Jersey’s recent initiative will be both unlawful and bad public policy."
In addition, he was careful to limit his opinion to professional sports. This leaves open the possibility that the NCAA, a co-plaintiff with the NBA against Governor Christie, may be viewed differently under PASPA moving forward. This is consistent with the current incarnation of New Jersey’s enabling legislation, which permits a wide variety of wagering—except for college games taking place in the Garden State or involving New Jersey universities, regardless of where they are played.
In today’s op-ed, commissioner Silver has successfully walked the legal tightrope again, recalling his expert navigation of the thorny Donald Sterling court docket. In addition to putting forward a common sense I’m just saying what all of you are thinking plan, he has, simultaneously, preserved the NBA’s legal position in the yet-to-be resolved New Jersey case.
It was a deft, if well-rehearsed, use of the pivot foot. Which leagues will follow in his footwork?