This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Centrepiece.
Bruce K. Johnson, Centre’s James Graham Brown Professor of Economics, joined former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley in October for a panel discussion of “Sports, Politics, and Public Policy: What Happens When They Intersect” at the University of Kentucky.
Bradley was the keynote speaker for the annual Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Lecture at UK’s Martin School of Public Policy. It was a timely visit. A few months earlier, the Supreme Court had overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, better known as the Bradley Act. The 1992 act had outlawed sports gambling in any state that did not already allow it, effectively limiting it to Nevada. Bradley, a former college basketball Player of the Year, Olympic gold medalist, NBA champion, and basketball Hall of Famer, had sponsored the bill because he felt strongly that athletes should not be “roulette chips.” Widespread gambling, he feared, could undermine the integrity of athletic competition and lead to more point-shaving and match-fixing scandals, similar to those involving UK basketball in the 1950s and the Chicago “Black Sox” in 1919.
In his prepared remarks, Bradley spoke warmly of his time working with Ford in the Senate. He also talked about how the lessons he learned playing ball helped him team up with senators on both sides of the aisle to enact tax reform, the Bradley Act, and other legislation.
After the talk, Johnson joined Bradley and longtime “Voice of the Kentucky Wildcats” Tom Leach to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision declaring the Bradley Act unconstitutional. Renee Shaw, KET’s Public Affairs managing producer and host, moderated the discussion. Johnson pointed out that many countries, including most of Europe, have long allowed sports gambling with little evidence of match fixing. He noted that 17 of the 24 English Premier League (soccer) teams even promote their bookmaker sponsors with ads on their jerseys.
Leach asked if legal gambling might lead to college athletes, bound by a strict code of amateurism, being paid. Johnson said the only thing stopping it—for now—is the NCAA. But several lawsuits claim NCAA rules violate the Sherman Antitrust Act. One recent decision resulted in a partial defeat for the NCAA. Another case about to go to trial represents an even larger threat to the NCAA. But Johnson says if the NCAA loses, and schools begin to pay players, the threat of point shaving and match fixing will fall, because players would have more to lose were they to be caught.
The discussion also addressed what form legalized gambling might take. Bradley would like to see national regulation so that all states would be held to the same standard, but he thinks it unlikely to happen. Johnson pointed out that lobbying is intense in many states, with casino interests, horse racing interests, and others all angling for licenses. Most states will probably allow it because many sports fans enjoy betting on games and states see gambling as a source of free money in the form of new tax revenue.
by Diane Johnson
January 11, 2019