When I walked into a bookie's shop in England recently, a disturbing spectacle greeted me.
A young man, his face red and contorted with fury, was loudly cursing and repeatedly kicking a flashing machine that stood in the corner. He had evidently suffered a series of losses playing online roulette on what is known as a fixed-odds betting terminal, which lays on three spins a minute with a maximum bet of £100 ($131) each time. A quicker and more dependable route to penury was never devised.
The lesson to be learned from this distressing spectacle was clear; the smart man will stick to betting on horses. Indeed, yours truly, though failing to select the winner of a race, did not wind up significantly poorer and was thus able to exit the premises without breaking any fixtures.
FOTBs are not likely to become a menace here. But the American gambling industry may soon be spreading its tentacles much further, with consequences that will not be entirely benign.
The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments next Monday in a constitutional challenge to the law that restricts single-game betting to Nevada, with Oregon, Delaware and Montana allowed to run sports lotteries. New Jersey is keen to run its own sports books and has been trying for the last six years to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which makes Las Vegas America's gambling mecca.
An act that gives one state an advantage over all the others clearly offends the principles of equal protection and federalism, so you'd need an advanced law degree to understand why New Jersey has lost every round in court with the argument that PASPA violates the Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Louisiana's Jeff Landry is one of five state attorneys general who are supporting New Jersey…
But New Jersey's prospects looked much brighter after Louisiana and 19 other states, seeking their slice of the gambling bonanza, filed amicus briefs and the U.S. Supreme Court, having refused writs first time around, apparently signaled a change of heart by accepting the case.
The feds could make gambling illegal, but they couldn't make it unpopular. According to the American Gaming Association, in 2015 illegal bets on NFL and college games amounted to $93 billion nationwide. Las Vegas bookmakers that year took legal bets of $2 billion.
Those numbers may explain why the constitutional defects of PASPA suddenly became obvious to the 20 state attorneys general who intervened in the lawsuit on New Jersey's side. Hard-up states all over the country would jump at a chance to legalize — and tax — sports betting. Politicians will always dread, say, raising sales taxes, but milking sinners is relatively painless. That's why a state lottery, video poker and casinos emerged from nowhere in Louisiana a generation ago.
All the major professional sports leagues, as well as the NCAA, are urging the Supreme Court to rule against New Jersey, supposedly because they fear gambling's corruptive effect. That objection is clearly absurd, since Americans are already betting such vast sums that there is plenty enough money sloshing around to pay for points to be shaved or games to be fixed. And there is no reason for legalized betting to be any more corruptive than the current arrangement. It might be less so.
Still, legalization would presumably mean that Americans would bet even more on, say, football games. It is obvious that the public feels no compunction about violating the law against sports betting, but right now, a minimal effort is required to skirt it by finding a friendly neighborhood or online bookie.
Legalization would not only remove any impediments but presumably clear the way for betting companies to advertise. That young fellow kicking the machine to bits will have seen commercials that suggest easy money is around the corner, and the lure of gambling is bound to prove irresistible for even more Americans if the Supreme Court opens the floodgates.
More gambling can only mean more addicts, more destitution and more frustration for an unfortunate minority. That does not mean the rest of us should hesitate to enhance a weekend with a few bucks on the Saints game, but, if the states are to be saddled with the social costs of problem gambling, it seems only fair for them to get a share of the action.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.