Another silly prohibition

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted June 1999

The problem started long ago, when we started calling our elected representatives "lawmakers," instead of "delegates."

Other than those who make their livings redistributing government hand-outs, does any American wake up in a near-panic each day, fearing we don't have enough laws, and that Congress may fail to pass a dozen more by sundown?

Yet for decades, the folks we send to our state and national capitals have grown pale at even the remotest prospect of being dubbed "ineffective" because they were "unable to get any major new legislation passed."

It's reached the point where the mere revelation in a series of reports by a major metropolitan newspaper or TV station that a given profession or industry "still operates almost entirely without federal regulation!" is enough to send Washington's legions forth into tumultuous regulatory battle, bedecked in all the gleaming martial splendor of the Dauphin's forces sortieing bravely out onto that muddy plain at Agincourt.

Thus, when Congress appoints a body like the federal gambling study commission -- even though the group's official mandate speaks merely of studying the national impacts of gambling and reporting back those findings -- the common perception is that such a body will surely return with some massive new proposed regulatory scheme.

It now seems clear that isn't going to happen. So, those on the commission who still believe their task is to help Congress express some measure of moral oppobrium are now apparently scrambling to come up with something they can propose, to demonstrate that they "care about the children," or whatever.

Feel-good recommendations that won commission approval May 17 included a proposed ban on Internet gaming, and a national ban on gambling on college athletics (now allowed only in Nevada, Delaware, Montana, and Oregon.)

Given the speed with which technology is advancing, the proposed ban on Internet gaming may someday appear as quaint as century-old laws requiring that automobiles be preceded by a man on foot with a red flag. Given the ease with which web sites can now be established in foreign countries, how exactly would such a ban be enforced?

But the most important proposal is the ban on wagering on college athletics, precisely because recent high-profile gambling scandals at Northwestern, Boston College, and Arizona State University are likely to give such a call some public resonance.

Indeed, the prospect of young athletes who have barely started to shave their faces (or legs, I suppose) being led into corruption and point-shaving by unscrupulous gamblers proffering wads of cash is a disturbing one. And the proponents can even score a few points by citing Nevada's own minor hypocrisy, since the Silver State allows casino bets on the sporting events of out-of-state schools, but not on our own college athletes.

Still, the panel returns here to the very "prohibition" problem it has so delicately managed to sidestep for most of its term. The realistic choice is never between legal gambling and no gambling at all, but rather between legal gambling -- where some resort to police and courts is possible -- and illegal gambling, in which the player has no legal protection against either stacked decks or unsavory collection procedures.

College athletics has become a big-money game in which major schools spend millions to vie for even more millions in gate receipts and television rights. To expect that the public can be dissuaded from chancing a few dollars on contests that already dominate the national airwaves and sports pages is silly. Does anyone really believe we can ban office pools and bar bets?

If the "professionalizing" of college athletics keeps rubbing its hypocrisy in our face, the solution is to face reality the way the Olympics finally did when they dropped their hypocritical "amateur" rule. Let the colleges officially sign on as a farm system for the NFL and NBA, and pay salaries to their ballplayers, stipulating only that they be no older than 23, and allowing them to take tuition-free college courses so long as they make the team -- or not, as they please.

(Heck, the schools might even dedicate some small part of the proceeds to allow non-athletic-scholarship students to play free-admission contests on the same fields and courts on off days -- real "college athletics" on which it's unlikely anyone would want to bet, anyway.)

Does America really need to involve its cops in any more gunfights attempting to enforce any more unenforceable prohibitions? The greatest sports scandal in American history -- the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series -- was not prevented by the fact that sports betting was then illegal in all 48 states.

Must we really go through this pointless exercise, just so commissioners and congressmen alike can whine, "Well, we had to do something"?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $21.95 plus $3 shipping through Mountain Media, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127-4422, or 1-800-244-2224.


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