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With the Supreme Court hearing a landmark case, nationwide sports betting could be imminent—and everyone wants a piece of the action
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IN THE OFF MOMENTS when they weren't shooting the king's soldiers, dumping crates of tea into harbors and otherwise committing treason, the Founding Fathers were quite the bunch of gambling men. They all bet the ponies. (In The Daily Beast, author and historian Philip Smucker wrote about a horse race in which an entry owned by George Washington beat one owned by Thomas Jefferson.) They bet on cards, and they bet on anything that moved, including fighting cocks. James Madison's stepson, John Payne Todd, gambled away not only his fortune but his indulgent stepdad's as well. Madison wound up having to mortgage the family estate to pay off Todd's debts. The Continental Army was kept afloat partly by a series of national lotteries.

It is an essential part of the American character to make someone else's money your money with as little physical labor as possible. So, when Washington superlawyer Ted Olson began his presentation before the Supreme Court of the United States by taking us all back to the fights over federal and state sovereignty, it was hard not to imagine the spirits of the Founders laying odds on whether the state of New Jersey or the NCAA would win the case.

The matter of Christie v. NCAA came before the Court as the first order of business on Dec. 4. At issue was the state of New Jersey's desire to legalize betting on sports events. In 1992, at the behest of almost every important sports organization in the country, Congress passed something called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. PASPA—Washington travels on its acronyms—left sports betting intact where it already existed but forbade it everywhere else. It did, however, leave a window of time within which New Jersey could join the states with legalized betting, but New Jersey blew that deadline.

Thus the state has gone to war against PASPA since 2012, after a statewide referendum on sports betting passed overwhelmingly. All the leagues and the busybodies at the NCAA sued the state and won. New Jersey tried once more to legalize sports wagering in '14, and got beat in court again. The state then appealed to the Supreme Court, which shocked everyone by agreeing to hear the case.

The legislative history of PASPA is an interesting one. Its passage 25 years ago was suffused with the kind of public moralism that has been used to cloak all manner of greed on the part of sports management—most notably, the panjandrums of college sports who claimed to be concerned only about the delicate souls of their "student-athletes" and not concerned at all about someone else making money off the sweat of same. But they weren't alone. Then NBA commissioner David Stern told Congress that it had the power and the duty to regulate sports betting, and the law's advocates in one subcommittee intoned, "Sports gambling is a national problem. The harms it inflicts are felt beyond the borders of those States that sanction it."

But times change, and sanctimony very often becomes unaffordable. Particularly in the wake of the economic crash of 2008--09, cash-strapped states went trolling for new sources of revenue. David Stern completely reversed himself. The successful Republican candidate for president in 2016 has come out in favor of sports betting. As a longtime leader in this area, New Jersey jumped at the opportunity. The NCAA, still clinging to its tattered reputation, issued a statement in 2015 that read, in part, "The NCAA maintains that the spread of legalized sports wagering is a threat to student-athlete well-being and the integrity of athletic competition." This time, however, the public morals argument found substantial pushback. Because the real fight over sports betting is not about sinful wagering, or even specifically about money. It is about control.

Every major sports controversy of the past 50 years is about control. The endless wrangles about free agency have been about control. The civic brawls over subsidized stadiums have been about control. The current, Hydra-headed crisis in college sports is all about control. Who controls the money? Who controls your career, your body, your life? The most basic question at the heart of every sports controversy comes down to who controls the commercial commodity of athletic competition and, inevitably, who controls the athlete as commodity, a consideration that has not applied to ordinary American citizens since the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The people who control the sports-industrial complex are trying to keep other powerful entities—namely, state governments—from profiting from their products. The predominant questioning from the Supreme Court justices indicated that they believe the case against sports betting is pretty threadbare.

The smart money seems to indicate that New Jersey will prevail, and we will enter into yet another new era in our complicated relationship with the games that entertain us. Despite all its howling, the sports-industrial complex will be fine if the Supreme Court rules against it. Which is as it should be. The Founders would understand.

The real fight over sports betting is not about sinful wagering, or even specifically about money. It is about control.

GO FIGURE

$2.5 million

Total prize money in an NFL survivor pool that was shut down after federal agents seized the funds from the New York--based organizers. The pool reportedly had more than 23,000 entries.

$125,000

Price fetched at auction for the racket that Billie Jean King used during the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, believed to be the most expensive piece of women's sports memorabilia ever sold.

$4 million

Guaranteed annual salary for Roger Goodell in his five-year contract extension, signed last week. With bonuses, the NFL commissioner's deal is reportedly worth about $200 million.

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