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Supreme Court ruling will make watching sports more fun for some fans. You can bet on it.

In this March 15, 2018 photo, people watch coverage of the first round of the NCAA college basketball tournament at the Westgate Superbook sports book in Las Vegas. The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law that bars gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports in most states, giving states the go-ahead to legalize betting on sports. (AP Photo/John Locher)
The Supreme Court struck down a federal law prohibiting sports gambling on Monday, giving states the green light to legalize the practice. The 6-3 decision upheld the legality of a New Jersey law permitting gambling at casinos and racetracks.

“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority decision. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own.”

We asked Roger Abrams, the Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern and a leading authority on the intersection of sports and the law, to examine the ruling’s significance and what it means for sports, sports fans, and daily fantasy sites like DraftKings.

In your opinion, what’s the significance of this ruling?

I’m surprised by the ruling, especially that it was 6 to 3. From what I’ve read, it’s basically on the grounds of federalism. But we are in the middle of a period of extraordinary social change. When you look back on the way life was more than 100 years ago, you couldn’t have predicted where we are now as a country and as a people. The concerns we might have about the immorality of sports gambling will not be as significant as the fun people have betting on their favorite teams.

“The concerns we might have about the immorality of sports gambling will not be as significant as the fun people have betting on their favorite teams.”

Roger Abrams law professor

I think sports are right at the heart of what we are as society, and we enjoy having fun with it. We have always valued risk-taking in American society, and this is just another one of those risks.

Much like the lottery, I think every state will eventually do this. It’s a very low-cost way of making a lot of money for state activities, including education. The ones that are going to hurt, although maybe not that much, are the illegal gambling outlets. The amount of illegal gambling in this country is so much more than sports books in Las Vegas take in.

How might this decision impact sports gambling, especially daily fantasy sports betting sites such as DraftKings?

In the short term, the outlets that have found a place in the marketplace will continue to do fine. In the long term, I think this will be run by the states and connected to the lottery systems they have now. So many people participate now in what is either clearly illegal gambling or really close to it—office pools and the rest—that it won’t require a major change in behavior.

Do you see any concerns with regard to the sanctity or legitimacy of sports?

There have always been concerns about cheating in sports. I’ve done work looking back to the 1870s, in the early years of the National League of Professional Baseball. Four guys were thrown out of the league for taking $100 each for throwing a game. For decades, up to and including the Black Sox scandal, there was legitimate concern that these participants could be affecting the outcomes of games. That’s one thing each of the leagues tries really hard to protect.

Periodically those issues will arise. I think sunlight is the greatest disinfectant, to quote Justice Louis Brandeis. If betting becomes public, it will be regulated with a lot of sunshine.

What challenges will states face in regulating sports gambling?

They’ll need to make sure that they can account for the money they receive, that they fulfill their promises in terms of how they will use the money, and that betting becomes something that is considered to be socially acceptable—all of which has happened with regard to the lottery.

State and local governments can be criticized for all kinds of things, but they’ve done a fairly good job with operating the lottery. I think that will carry over. You need to have someone who is ultimately responsible for the operation.

 

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