Editorial | Sports betting in Illinois?

Editorial | Sports betting in Illinois?

The NCAA men's basketball tournament may soon take on a new air of excitement.

In the first of what is expected to be a blockbuster series of decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday issued a doozy.

It opened the door to commercial sports betting in virtually every state of the union. One can almost hear the stampede of gambling-industry lobbyists beating a path to Springfield while revenue-hungry legislators salivate over the prospect of another easy tax grab.

The problem, of course, will be who gets what — meaning who will get rich off the deals and who won't.

In the meantime, legal analysts will be parsing the high court's 6-3 decision that found the federal government had no authority to pass a 1990s-era law that barred all states except Nevada from authorizing commercial sports betting.

The premise for the legislation — one backed by the professional sports leagues — is that widespread prohibition is necessary to protect the integrity of athletic competition.

That's a nice idea, assuming that it works. But whether Joe Sixpack can place a legal bet on a Bears/Packers game would seem to have little impact on the integrity of the game.

The underground sports betting economy is estimated to be worth about $150 million a year. Besides, there are plenty of ways to get a bet down at a Nevada sports book.

Assuming states like Illinois legalize sports books at their various existing gambling venues, it will be easier to place a bet. But motivated consumers — like the typical bettor — know how to achieve their goals.

As a legal matter, the high court ruled that the federal government has no authority to command state entities not to authorize sports betting. That decision, the court said, belongs to the states.

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

If there is any ideological split in the decision, it's loosely along conservative/liberal lines.

Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas endorsed the majority opinion. As conservatives, they are perceived to be more sympathetic to encroachments on state authority by the federal government.

But Justice Elena Kagan, one of the four liberals, aligned herself with the majority.

Of the three other liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer joined the majority decision in part.

Only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor stood in full-throated opposition to the majority decision.

Given the fact that both Congress as well as the states now have the authority to regulate sports gambling, the public may well witness a race between the two to see who can act first.

Indeed, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he intends to introduce federal legislation to address potential problems.

"... the rapid rise of the internet means that sports betting across state lines is now just a click away. We cannot allow this practice to proliferate amid uneven enforcement and a patchwork race to the regulatory bottom," he said.

Hatch's excited concern, however, hardly seems justified. What, specifically, are the problems that he perceives beyond a leap into the unknown?

That's not to say there are not serious social problems with gambling. That is a fact of life. Too many people who can't afford it lose too much at casinos and video-gambling parlors.

The largest non-social problem this decision will contribute to is that there is so much legal gambling now in various states, including Illinois, that there's not enough business to go around. They're cannibalizing each other.

There is much about the consequences of this decision that is simply unknown and subject to wild speculation. Hatch seems to be focusing on worst-case scenarios.

The good news is that because states have the individual authority to make their own rules, at least for now, it will be easy to determine what works well and what doesn't.

The court's ruling is also a useful reminder that in our federal/state system, there are regulatory limits beyond which the federal government may not step.

As Alito noted, the U.S. Constitution withholds from the federal government the power to issue orders to the states.

"It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine," he wrote.

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