Marijuana, self-driving cars, pepper spray, absinthe and open-carry firearms are now legal in some or all of the United States, even if they are still impractical to enjoy simultaneously. That leaves one last taboo so illicit, you'll have to lean in closer so I can whisper it: sports betting.
This is an article from the April 8, 2013 issue
Wagering with a bookmaker remains illegal everywhere but Nevada, which even your grandma knows is a crock of Bulls-Heat—or Hawks-Cavs, or whatever game she's illegally betting on right now. Because laws stop people from gambling on sports in the way stern looks prevent them from spitting on the subway. By the time the NCAA tournament ends on April 8, the FBI says $2.5 billion will have been wagered on it. (And that's just by Charles Barkley.) More money is bet on the first four days of March Madness than on the Super Bowl, which is still the single biggest wagering day of the year. Nevada's annual sports-book take—$2.9 billion in 2011—is a drop in the bucket, less than 1% of all national sports wagering. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission put our collective annual sports bet as high as $380 billion. That was 14 years ago.
All other forms of gambling are legal (casinos, lotteries, bingo, pull tabs, scratch cards, horse tracks, dog tracks, jai alai, church raffles, stock markets, OTB and those amazing gas-station slots in Oklahoma), but in that study our own government conceded, "Sports betting [is] the most popular widespread form of gambling in America." We are One Nation, Under an Over/Under.
And so New Jersey's voters, legislature and governor sanely moved last year to legalize sports betting in Atlantic City casinos and at the state's racetracks. The state that gave us our first organized baseball game, professional basketball game, intercollegiate football game, electric lights, movies and phonographs—to say nothing of Snooki and Paulie Walnuts—was introducing another diversion to help idle Americans spend their money. Or trying to. The NCAA, NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have jointly sued to block the move, a suit the satirist Ambrose Bierce anticipated more than 100 years ago when he wrote, "The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor on the business known as gambling."
New Jersey recognizes that prohibition of alcohol didn't work and prohibition of gambling hasn't worked and prohibition of alcohol-and-gambling in tandem really hasn't worked, especially in the Garden State, where a man last month bought the winning $338 million Powerball ticket at a liquor store. (That'll teach him.) With its 8% tax on casino revenue, New Jersey expects to raise $100 million in the first year of legalized sports betting. But the state is opposed by the Justice Department and a 1992 federal law that banned sports gambling in all states that didn't already have legalized gambling on the books—namely, Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon. (Last month a federal judge upheld the ban; New Jersey is appealing and the case could reach the Supreme Court.) Of those states, only Delaware has an active sports lottery: You can place parlay bets on NFL games at highly regulated venues like Buffalo Wild Wings.
Having seen Buffalo Wild Wings' commercials, professional leagues argue that legal betting will lead to the appearance of fixed games. But these objections—like amateurism or the hook shot—feel antiquated. Our louche cousins in Europe bet legally on everything; Real Madrid players wear an online bookie's name across their chests. Yes, there are frequent allegations of match fixing, most recently through a Singaporean crime syndicate allegedly run by a real-life Bond villain named Dan Tan. (He has denied the charges.) And sure, the same could happen here if we were betting billions. Oh, right: We already are. Why else are betting lines published in your morning paper?
Personally, I don't bet on sports and so have never had to nurse an ulcer over some garbage-time shot that affects the spread. My motto has always been: Beat the traffic, not the spread. But not far from my home in Connecticut are two of the world's largest casinos, one of which has an arena that is home to a WNBA team, boxing matches, mixed martial arts and state high school basketball championships. The physical proximity of these two national obsessions, sports and gambling, is—how to phrase this?—no big whoop.
Connecticut also had a blue law forbidding alcohol sales on Sundays, when the beer on our grocery store shelves had a curtain drawn around it, as if it were demurely taking a shower. When commercials during NFL games implored us to drink beer, we'd drive across the border to Massachusetts or New York. Or we did, until Connecticut dropped the law a year ago—to no noticeable effect whatsoever.
Yes, alcohol has caused untold human misery. And gambling has too. But so has marriage, and no one would think of making that illegal for millions of Americans.