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Original Issue

A Losing Bet

The line on legalizing sports gambling? The author says it's a bad idea

Whenever I go to the racetrack, which is considerably more often than the average citizen, I bet on almost every race. I like the action. I like having a personal rooting interest. What's more, I see absolutely no contradiction between my betting at the track and the fact that I'm dead-flat opposed to any further legalization of gambling on baseball, football, hockey and basketball.

Sure, I've heard all the seductive arguments in favor of legal sports gambling. The main one is that because illegal gambling on sports events is already at least a $38 billion-a-year industry, why not take it away from criminals and put it into the hands of the states? That would remove the stigma from gambling, put illegal bookmakers out of business and give cash-starved state governments a lucrative source of revenue. Simple, huh? Well, don't believe it. I say such a plan would be opening new cans of worms.

The way I see it, there's already too much legal gambling. As recently as 15 or 20 years ago the only places in this country where you could get a bet down without breaking the law were racetracks and the Nevada casinos. The gaming industry was so limited that many people who had no business gambling were discouraged from doing so. To go to a track, for example, you had to have the money for transportation, admission, a program and the Daily Racing Form. In addition to the cost, not everyone could afford the time or the trouble. Sure, there were bookies, but many people were—and are—reluctant to indulge in an illegal activity.

Now, however, we are a nation of gamblers, mainly because legal betting has become so readily available. Off-track betting, which operates in 11 states, is as much a part of some neighborhoods as the convenience store. Casino gambling in Atlantic City is within a day's drive of 60 million people, and you can even play craps and blackjack on riverboats in Iowa and soon in Illinois. Most insidious of all are the various state lotteries, which expose government at its greedy worst.

Even though a lot of lottery tickets are sold to the people who can least afford them, states shamelessly pour millions of dollars into promoting and glamorizing their lotteries instead of emphasizing that the chances of winning are umpteen million to one. The longest shot at the racetrack is far more likely to be a winner than a ticket in most lottery jackpots, yet the public keeps pouring billions down the drain. And to this we're going to add betting on games?

Aside from concerns that the passion to get rich quick through gambling is replacing devotion to hard work and saving as the American way, here are five reasons to oppose further expansion of legalized sports gambling:

•Expansion of legalized gambling would induce even more people to become bettors. That, in turn, would only lead to a higher incidence of compulsive gambling. If the sad case of Pete Rose served any useful purpose, it was to emphasize that addiction to gambling can be just as ruinous as addiction to alcohol or drugs. At least Rose could afford his habit better than many others can. How about the thousands of families that are destroyed each year because the breadwinner taps out? How do we reconcile the notion that government is supposed to protect the public welfare with the idea of its simultaneously promoting an activity certain to increase a debilitating addiction?

•Fan hostility toward athletes, already a growing concern, would only increase. With more people having their hard-earned cash at risk, there would be more second-guessing, especially about crucial decisions and plays that affect the point spread. My hunch is that legal betting on soccer in Europe has to be one of the factors behind the many riots that mar matches there.

•Increased gambling on baseball, football, basketball and other sports would have a serious negative impact on horse racing and dog racing simply because team sports are so popular. Some may shrug this off as the law of the marketplace, and of course it is. But do states really want to risk further damaging industries that have proven their ability to generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue but are already showing signs of weakness?

•Legalized gambling would not drive the illegal bookmakers out of business because state-run betting operations would not be able to issue credit, which is one of the bookies' major enticements to gamblers.

•Legalized gambling just doesn't make sense from a practical standpoint. For openers, who would establish the betting line? Are states willing to trust some guy in Las Vegas? How would the states know that the oddsmaker would not be susceptible to a bribe? What would a state do if it suddenly found itself taking a bath because of a bad line? A bookmaker can balance his books by laying off bets with other bookies. I'm not sure states would be willing or able to do the same thing.

Oh, yes. I also should mention the moral contradictions. Let me see if I've got this straight. The numbers racket is illegal if it's run by mobsters but perfectly all right if the states run it and call it a lottery. And betting on games is illegal if you call your friendly neighborhood bookie, but it's O.K. if the government gets into it. Everybody see the difference? If so, there area lot of guys in jail for illicit gambling—most of whom have been apprehended at considerable cost to the taxpaying public—who would like an explanation.