By Tom Cardella
Last week the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the federal anti-gambling law. South Philly sighed a collective yawn. You mean it was illegal to bet on sports? You from another planet or what? Around these parts, a lot of guys have closer relationships with their bookies than their wives. You might forget the wife’s birthday. But you write poems to your bookie when his birthday rolls around.
The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act barred gambling on football, basketball, baseball and other sports. The only state that was exempted was Nevada. Hey, Las Vegas without gambling would be like Trump without hair spray. The major professional sports and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) all had strongly supported the ban. The Commissioners of the major sports all claimed that legalized betting on their sports would hurt the integrity of the game. And they each said so with a straight face. Hypocrisy — thou weareth a dark suit and wingtips. I wish they worried as much about some of their players beating up their wives and girlfriends.
It is estimated that $4.5 billion is wagered illegally every year on the Super Bowl alone. Yet, the “integrity” of the National Football League seems to have survived gambling. The Vegas odds have been a staple of the sports page since the Athens Gazette laid 2–1 on whether Socrates would drink a cup of hemlock.
The cash cow of sports betting is pro football. I get the feeling that the big reason the NFL introduced instant replay was to assure the gambling world that it got the calls right. Before instant replay, Johnny Half-point watched wrong calls by the refs and wondered out loud about “integrity.” Mostly described “integrity” using four-letter adjectives. Might have tossed the barbecued wings at the TV screen. These days, the network telecasts obligingly show the replays with numerous angles. Half-point might not be happy with the outcome, but at least he knows the refs are not on the take and tinkering with the game’s integrity.
For you youngsters out there, it wasn’t always that way. Back in the day, we’d hang on the corner at 9th and Wolf after an Eagles game. One of the older guys would insist that the interception in the last minute of play was intentional. He claimed every NFL game was scripted. Each play. He’d look at each of us with a jaundiced eye and tell us how stupid we were being taken in by the elaborate choreography. Claimed he knew who would win and when the fix would be in before the game. Would insist, when his prediction didn’t turn out, that the script had been changed sometime between the National Anthem and the final gun sounding. We called him “Murph.” And Murph had no doubts about the integrity of the game. There wasn’t any. Murph would’ve loved replay.
I heard some naïve commentator on NPR claim that with legalized sports betting, fans will be able to sit in the stands during games and bet on every play. Hey Cecil, or whatever your name is, didn’t anybody ever tell you about the guys with fat cigars in their mouths, sitting in the bleachers at Connie Mack Stadium, betting on balls and strikes? These guys didn’t need the sanction of the state to place their bets. And they still don’t.
A recent study estimates that within the next five years, 32 states will line up to take advantage of legalized sports betting on games. And what do you think the remaining 18 states will do once that happens? It’s much easier for politicians to take a pledge of no new taxes when gambling tax revenue is pouring in. You can worry about gambling degenerates betting themselves into oblivion, and rightly so. But what do you think those guys are doing right now during every football season? They bet the Thursday night game and lose. Then they bet the Sunday games to make up for their Thursday night loss. By the time the Monday night game rolls around, they’re in big time and are taking one last shot at recouping their losses. That’s no going to change much.
My source tells me he thinks Vegas will take a small hit, but — as he says — “Vegas is still Vegas.” He thinks on-the-street betting will survive legalization better than the illegal numbers business did when state lotteries went into effect. The difference between numbers and sports betting being the amount of the bets. Legal establishments require the cash up front. Many of the illegal bookmaking operations already use off-shore betting websites. Customers like the convenience of their local bookmaker. They can settle up at the end of the week rather than needing the money upfront to bet (legal establishments require the cash upfront). Bettors also like the convenience of using their computer or picking up the phone to make a bet.
Former Senator Bill Bradley, a professional basketball player himself, has always vehemently opposed legalized sports betting on games. Bradley says that legalized betting on sports turns every player into a roulette chip. I respect Bill (“Dollar Bill” to his friends), but hell, these players have always been roulette chips in America.
Like it or not, gambling is as much part of the culture in South Philly on an Autumn Sunday as Mom’s meatballs.