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Expanding legal sports betting gets unlikely ally

The odds are good even the most perceptive bookmaker didn’t see this turnaround coming: U.S. Sen. John McCain speaking out in favor of expanding legalized sports betting in America.

“We need a debate in Congress,” the Arizona Republican said recently. “We need to have a talk with the American people, and we need to probably have hearings in Congress on the whole issue so we can build consensus.”

The American people couldn’t hear him. They were too busy betting with both fists on the recent Super Bowl — most of it illegally. Authorities estimate the “Big Game” generated $3.8 billion in illegal and untaxed wagers this year.

But it’s hard to be much of a prohibitionist when your state generates big revenue by playing host to games that make up some of the biggest betting events of the year. Arizona is home to college bowl games, and now the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl. If the political brain trust was smart, it would legalize sports betting on those occasions and bag a fortune in dollars that otherwise are flowing to Nevada or, more likely, into the pockets of illegal bookmakers from here to the Caribbean.

Some of us are old enough to remember when McCain led the fight to ban college sports betting in places it’s currently legal. The fact those places were basically all located in Nevada was of little concern to McCain back in 2001 when he was bellowing and braying to ban the bets.

In an article published in The Hill titled, “It’s Past Time to Ban Amateur Sports Gambling,” McCain offered, “In 1992, Congress recognized the federal interest in protecting sports and athletes from the harmful effects of gambling, and prohibited state-sanctioned sports betting in the overwhelming majority of states. Although Congress ‘grandfathered’ a handful of states at that time, only Nevada has chosen to permit legal gambling on college sports. Until last year, however, when it changed its law in response to charges of gross hypocrisy, Nevada did not allow gambling on Nevada college teams— it only countenanced gambling on young athletes from every other state.

“Although betting on amateur sports is legal only in Nevada, its impacts are felt throughout the country. Not only does the Las Vegas betting clearinghouse send a confusing message about the propriety and legality of amateur sports gambling, the publication throughout the country of Las Vegas-generated point spreads fuels illegal gambling in the judgment of the (National Gambling Impact Study Commission), and steals victories from young athletes who manage to beat their opponents but not the spread.”

Forgetting for a moment that Nevada sports books have played an integral role in ferreting out signs of sports fixing for many years, the college sports betting issue generated big headlines for McCain and set him at odds with the gaming industry.

So it was with no small sense of irony that at the same time McCain was hand-wringing over the soul of amateur athletics, he was also seen playing with both fists at the tables inside Caesars Palace not too far from one a mega-sports book.

Times have certainly changed. This past year in an opinion published in The New York Times, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said legalized sports betting should be expanded outside Nevada and regulated by the federal government, which does such a good job of regulating other things. But I digress.

Silver’s perspective is refreshing and historically astute. Professional basketball’s founding generation was riddled with bookmakers and gamblers. Its games gave bookies and players action in Eastern cities at a time there wasn’t much else flowing in the winter months.

The same is true for professional football. Some of its legendary leaders had bookmaking in their bloodlines — not that the NFL’s hypocritical hierarchy is inclined to admit that these days.

Above the Little League and Pop Warner levels, sports and betting are inextricably linked. That doesn’t mean it’s always a healthy relationship — sometimes it’s downright scandalous — but its existence is undeniable.

As a certain former prohibitionist from Arizona recently put it, “I think that there is a place for sports gambling where gambling is legal.”

Of course it is. And it’s long past time McCain and some of his fellow senators acknowledged the fact.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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