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WASHINGTON — The politician who has pushed as hard as any other to legalize sports gambling in the USA offered up some inside information.
"I don't bet," U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., told USA TODAY. "People think I'm a gambler because all of this, but I'm not."
Pallone, however, has helped turn the idea of legalized sports betting across the country from a long shot into a safe bet.
With the federal ban on full-fledged sports wagering outside of Nevada now in place for 25 years, the smart money is on Pallone and like-minded allies to dismantle the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Fifteen states have either introduced or enacted legislation to authorize sports gambling if the ban is overturned, according to Sara Slane, vice president of public affairs for the American Gaming Association.
"You already are starting to see states get in front of this issue," Slane said. "And again, I think that speaks to the desire to want to administer sports betting if they so choose to."
The opportunity could come as soon as 2018.
On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of PASPA, and the nine justices are expected to issue a ruling by the spring. It's worth noting that Utah, a state that has no gambling, has joined 19 states signing on to a court filing that challenges PASPA on the grounds that the federal ban infringes on states' rights.
Even if the Supreme Court upholds the law, Pallone said he is gaining support on Capitol Hill to repeal the ban. He compares the ban on sports gambling to the prohibition of liquor, which, in case you haven't heard, was lifted in 1933.
"The only thing (prohibition) did was to encourage organized crime and make Al Capone and the rest of the guys more powerful," said Pallone, who this year released a draft bill that would allow states to legalize gambling and noted that betting outside of Nevada "goes on anyway, it's just being done illegally."
In fact, the American Gaming Association said PASPA has helped fuel a $150 billion underground sports gambling industry that avoids regulation and billions of dollars in taxes.
"The only group that benefits is organized crime," Pallone said.
'A concerted campaign'
Pallone no longer needs a bullhorn to be heard on this issue. Other powerful entities have joined the fight, most notably an organization headquartered about a mile from Pallone's office on Capitol Hill. The nerve center of movement is now a seventh-floor office in downtown D.C. that houses the American Gaming Association.
Funded by casinos, the association has pushed for the legalization of sports betting in part by building a coalition that includes law enforcement, politicians and sports industry leaders. The association has paid for much of the research being used to tout the benefits of legalized sports gambling and this month made its case during a conference call with reporters.
"This is a concerted campaign, unlike anything since I've been studying this issue," said Sam Skolnik, author of High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction. "The deck is stacked in favor of the gambling industry in many ways in this country. What that's done is really altered the debate, the legalization debate, and made it sort of David vs. Goliath."
Skolnik said the legalization of sports wagering outside Nevada will trigger a spike in addictive behavior and associated problems.
"If this is going to happen, regulations need to be put into place that recognize that this is going to have harmful effects on many folks," he said. "My concern is that not enough attention will be paid to the likely damages that would occur."
But there is no formidable opposition to the pro-sports gambling movement, and even Dennis DeConcini, a former U.S. senator from Arizona and the author of PASPA, said it might be time to review the ban.
"It seems to be that the wise thing to do would be to do some hearings on the issue," DeConcini told USA TODAY, "and get the latest information as to sport as to the capabilities to secure it so that it doesn't infiltrate with organized crime."
Pro leagues coming around?
The pro-sports gambling movement got a jolt in 2011 when New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit sports betting. But pro sports leagues challenged it, and five times the courts ruled against New Jersey.
Now the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the matter, with some legal experts saying that alone bodes well for the pro-sports gambling movement.
Lawyers representing the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA and other sports leagues will argue in favor of PASPA during the Supreme Court hearings -- but likely with less zeal than they have in the past.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has suggested he is open to regulated sports gambling, and this month Las Vegas broke ground on a $2 billion NFL stadium that will be home to the Raiders as soon as 2019.
Furthermore, this year the NHL brought pro sports to Las Vegas, with the Golden Knights in their inaugural season -- interpreted by the American Gaming Association and others as another sign that pro sports has softened opposition to sports gambling.
Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, said a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court would be welcome but not vital. He said Capitol Hill support for a repeal of the ban is growing, and a conference entitled "The Future of Sports Gambling in the U.S." was held in the Russell Senate Office Building this month.
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is among those who endorse congressional hearings on the matter.
"I think that it's time to take a fresh look at sports gaming and really gaming in general in the Congress," Gaetz, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told USA TODAY. "We haven't really reviewed the status of the law since the wide-scale proliferation of the Internet. The last time Congress made a law in this space, the movie Wayne's World was being released."
Gaetz said the Internet has changed the landscape for sports gambling -- much of which is done on the Internet through illegal offshore operators.
"The other reality that people have to wake up and face is that our gaming laws today are functionally unenforceable," he said. "Within minutes, any American can engage in sports betting from their phone. That was never contemplated in 1992."
That type of sentiment buoys Freeman, the American Gaming Association president who has spent much of the last three years spearheading the effort to legalize sports gambling.
"We still have a lot of work to do," he said. "But we're very optimistic that a regulated market is around the corner."
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