Spread of legalized sports betting is double-edged for pariah state Nevada

The Michigan State Spartans and North Carolina Tar Heels were a few hours from meeting in Monday's NCAA Championship.

Michigan State was a 71/2-point underdog.

I knew this because the betting line was printed in the newspaper. It proliferated on the Internet. It was slipped into TV broadcasts from the local sports report to ESPN.

By the time the nation's final two teams met to complete March Madness -- forget the fact we're a week into April -- every man, woman, child, and family pet with any interest in the outcome could easily learn the point spread, identify the favorite, and place a wager on the game. Given the popularity of the event, I wouldn't be surprised to learn the betting line was printed on the back of Wheaties boxes and inside church newsletters.

Some critics call it a scourge, other folks shrug and say it's a part of American life, but the simple fact is that sports gambling is inseparable from sports itself.

In the case of the NCAA Championship, most of the hundreds of millions gambled on the big game was done illegally in office pools, local bars and via the Internet with Caribbean sports books. Only in Nevada's legalized and regulated sports books has the point spread been celebrated without a lick of guilt.

That appears to be changing for good as Delaware and New Jersey move closer to legalization. Of the two, Delaware is hammering out legislation as I write.

Originally, a plan was forwarded to introduce legislation that would add up to three new casinos and 10 sports books in Delaware. On Tuesday, a representative submitted legislation that would make the state wide open for sports betting. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell's proposal called for legalized sports betting at up to 16 locations.

That's a far cry from governors in other states, who endorsed prohibitions on sports gambling while rushing to embrace casino legalization and the ubiquitous government-sanctioned lotteries.

While Delaware has explored expanding gambling as a way of generating revenue during a recession, the NCAA has remained as steadfast and, frankly, as corny as ever in its stonewalling of the reality of gambling in America. NCAA President Myles Brand, in an editorial in the News Journal of Wilmington, leveled the standard misguided rhetoric at the issue.

"Those in support of sports wagering try to characterize it as harmless fun that would line state budget coffers, but that is both naive and misguided," he wrote. "Any state winnings from the addition of sports wagering do not come free and clear. On the contrary; there is a cost and it carries a hefty price tag. Sports wagering is a serious problem, not a solution. It threatens the well-being of student-athletes and at worst can corrupt athletic contests or at best create the appearance of corruption."

Trouble is, no one with any credibility calls sports gambling harmless fun. The question is not, and never has been, whether sports betting is good for you: The questions are whether keeping it illegal does anything to dissuade gambling, and whether legalization has an appreciable upside.

And the NCAA, once a strict prohibitionist, now allows universities to advertise casinos in their arenas and game programs. Betting on an NCAA Tournament game is almost as big a tradition as rooting for your alma mater.

The NCAA's protests aside, the tide is turning. Delaware has made its own call, and New Jersey might not be far behind.

Whether the end result is a toe in the water or a cannon ball from the high dive, Delaware's embrace of legalization is sure to send ripples all the way to Las Vegas, where the corporate casino culture in recent years appears to have grown increasingly conflicted about the race and sports book component of the industry.

For Nevada, which has endured decades of criticism from hypocritical institutions and blow-hard politicians about its sports betting operations, the spread of legalization is double-edged. While we'll no longer be a pariah state, at least in this category, we'll be compelled to up our own game.

Will Nevada one day allow wagering on political races, as sports books in Great Britain and the Caribbean do?

I'm betting the answer is yes.

And just when it looked like our tattered reputation was improving.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.