Monday, May 18, 2009

And We Think Our Sporting Heroes Are Stupid...

In case proof were needed that American politics is a foreign country, news from Delaware, where legislators have voted to legalise sports gambling.

To explain; while horse and greyhound racing are fairly commonplace across the United States, other forms of sports betting were generally frowned on by the states until a federal ban was introduced in 1992. Four states had specific exemptions from that ban for activities that were legal in those states at the time the federal ban was imposed; Delaware's exemption related to a sports lottery (wherein punters bet on the cumulative outcome of a large number of games, the result being akin to a small stake on a big accumulator) that failed back in 1976 but is now one of the centrepieces of new Governor Jack Markell's deficit-reduction plan.

It's hard to argue with the logic, because betting now occupies a more significant place in American sporting culture than in perhaps any country since the height of the football pools in England, be it through the endless journalistic discussion of spread betting prices or the proliferation of college basketball pools even unto the Oval Office.

The source of the obsession is easy to trace, for while Montana and Oregon also have exemptions for lotteries, only one state has legalised betting on individual results. Coupled with Las Vegas' inexorable rise as a cultural venue, Nevada's unique legal position has allowed sports betting to flourish in the American consciousness. Betting from outside Nevada by telephone or internet is of course illegal, but a nod remains as good as a wink to a blind bat...

But despite all that, there is fierce resistance even to Delaware's return to the gambling fold, let alone to any relaxation of either the out-of-state or in-state bans. What's most remarkable, however, is that that resistance is lead not by the political or religious conservatives, but by the sports themselves, with various governing bodies having already threatened sanctions against Delaware teams.

The concern is the exact opposite of the one that gripped Britain for so long; while we were obsessing over lotteries being games of chance, the governing bodies are terrified of the skill element in sports betting and the scope for match-fixing. Some of that goes back to the early days of professional sports and the Black Sox scandal, but compared to the experiences of professional sports in Europe and considering the enormous salaries involved in America such a level of paranoia doesn't seem credible.

Betting exploits of individual players cast an equal shadow over the debate. Baseball remains obsessed with the downfall of Pete Rose (possibly the best pure hitter in history, banned for life after being caught betting on games of the Cincinnati Reds team he was manager of) and basketball is awash with rumours that Michael Jordan's abortive baseball career (as chronicled in that classic documentary film Space Jam) was a cover to allow him to serve a gambling ban without having to admit to doing so.

I wish I had a clever conclusion to all this, but I guess it should just speak for itself.

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