Next to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), there has been no greater opponent to legalizing sports gambling in the U.S. than the National Football League (NFL). But this week’s league vote approving the Oakland Raiders’ move to Las Vegas—the only place in the nation where single-game sports gambling is legal—may signal a softening of the league’s views.
For the last 25 years, the existence of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) has blocked states from legalizing, regulating, and taxing sports gambling. This law, however, grandfathered in state laws that already legalized the activity, leaving only Nevada with the ability to offer bets on individual games. Many other states have expressed an interest in regulating and taxing the money being spent in the existing illegal market, which experts estimate at somewhere between $140 and $500 billion a year. Standing between them and the potential millions in tax revenue has been the NFL.
Back in 1992, as Congress considered enacting the national prohibition, then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue testified that legal gambling “threatens the integrity of, and public confidence in, amateur and professional sports.” Current commissioner Roger Goodell, as recently as 2012 declared that gambling, in his opinion, was the number one threat to the integrity of pro football in the U.S. The league has led lawsuits, along with the NCAA, against New Jersey’s repeated efforts to legalize or decriminalize sports betting within the state, even as other leagues like the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer have all softened their positions or outright called for legalizing gambling for pro sporting events.
Now with the nearly unanimous vote by team owners to move the Raiders to Nevada, many are wondering if the NFL has finally been forced come to grips with the reality that Americans gamble—and have always gambled—on sports. Furthermore, many are hoping that this change of heart might be an indication that the league may not fight attempts to repeal PASPA, a law that, as I noted in a recent paper, has done nothing to stop match-fixing and, in fact, has made such corruption more likely.
Last May, Goodell commented that “all of us have evolved a little on gambling” and more recently he admitted that “we’ve seen the changes in the culture around the country in gambling,” and they are “very sensitive to that.” However, Goodell also commented that “if people think it is something that can influence the outcome of a game, we are absolutely opposed to that.” While Goodell’s comments taken as a whole might seem confusing, they may be the first signs that the league is changing—perhaps out of necessity—its formerly hardnosed stance against gambling.
The league has always implicitly recognized that gambling on its games occurs, in Nevada and around the world, both legally and illegally. The injury report, for example, which lets observers know which players may not be on the field due to injury, exists solely for the benefit of betting lines, in order to eliminate any advantage bettors might gain from “insider information.” Furthermore, 28 NFL teams (as of the latest count) have official sponsorship deals with Daily Fantasy Sports companies—businesses that take bets on fantasy teams. This suggests that the individual teams and the league recognize the benefits that gambling (even if fantasy gambling) has on viewership and fan-participation.
Now that the Raiders will playing games a stone’s throw away from people legally taking bets on the outcome of those games, the NFL’s stance on gambling will have to evolve by necessity. Rather than prohibit adults from voluntarily engaging in wagers, preventing state legislatures from deciding how best to regulate gambling within their own borders, and deputizing our nation’s legal system to protect its public image, the NFL will need to take action itself.
The league will need to figure out the best way to educate and monitor athletes and officials, and how to work with the gambling industry to identify and eliminate the threat that match-fixing might pose to its business. Once the NFL figures that out, perhaps Congress will recognize how useless PASPA has been and repeal this anachronistic and unconstitutional law.