The Supreme Court paves way for legalized sports gambling, now the real fight begins

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The Supreme Court of These United States just cleared the way for individual states to permit gambling on sporting events, a fairly expected result if you ask most folks.

But now comes the real fight – to see who gets to keep the losings, and in what percentage.

The Court voted to repeal PASPA, the law that prohibited sports betting except in states already grandfathered in (your Nevada and New Jersey, for example), but it left to the states the form that permission would take – most notably whether the states would force the casinos to pay the leagues an “integrity fee” for permission to bet their games, whether the states would cover the “integrity fee” or whether the states would tell the league to go pound sand with their “integrity fee.”

And when we put quotes around “integrity fee,” that’s because gouging isn’t really a matter of integrity. It’s a matter of gouging.

And if I have to choose between (a) leagues, (b) states and (c) casinos, and I’m not allowed (d) bettors, I’m going to have to say (c).

What the ruling does is allow states to make gambling on sports legal and therefore taxable, much as the new marijuana law has done. It decriminalizes that which never needed to be criminalized.

What it does not do, though, is explain how each state will or will not implement the costs and fees involved in legalizing gambling – whether each bet will be taxed, each winning bet will be taxed, and whether the states will be required to pay the sports leagues what amounts to a finder’s fee for putting on the games in the first place, or whether the casinos will have to (and thereby pass the costs onto the individual bettor).

This last part matters because it defines just how much your $20 bet on Chicago will cost you in the end, whether you win or not. And what you should want, quite frankly, is no integrity fee at all, because the casinos already handle the integrity issue by monitoring line moves by the minute that might indicate that a game isn’t on the up-and-up. It is in the casino’s interest most of all not to have crooked games, and they have a history of working directly with the leagues when such things occur.

A strict integrity fee is merely an up-front charge for doing what they already do, and in the NBA, their integrity fee would not have prevented Tim Donaghy, the biggest breach of integrity any sport has endured since the college basketball fixes of the ‘50s.

The states should be perfectly happy to take their chunk off the back end, from the winners, because otherwise why would any state want legalized gambling at all? Their armies of accountans have penciled this out, and the problems of waste in government aren’t in how they get the money but how they spend it.

And the casinos get theirs by controlling the betting lines and moving them at whim. That seems perfectly reasonable as a fee. After all, the books haven’t had a losing month in more than four years, so they’re doing more than fine.

Of course nobody is going to protect the bettor because in this country, despite what it says on the brochure, the customer is always wrong. The customer will be punished for choosing to be the customer, in this case having any integrity fee passed by the casinos on to them in diminished services, increased vigorish or other less-than-charming ways.

This means that unless the leagues, casinos and states can come to a reasonable agreement on how the new laws will be written and enforced, the best play a bettor can make is probably to bet outside the law entirely with someone who will take that bet without any fee or taxation at all. If you want to bet games, you’ll potentially need to know a lot of different sets of laws, which can make the process more rather than less confusing.

But at least the Supreme Court saw the inherent hypocrisy in PASPA and left it to the citizens to figure out how to take a reasonable decision and turn it to molten garbage. The devil, after all, is always in the details, in the same way that the half-point will always get you in the end.

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