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The Case For — And Against — Gambling On NBA Games

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for sports. And today, we're talking gambling because in an op-ed for the New York Times this past week, NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, surprised a whole lot of folks by calling for sports gambling to be legalized throughout the U.S.

Right now, it is not. But it is big business. By some estimates, up to $400 billion a year is won and lost on these wagers. So the question now - what are the odds that Mike Pesca has some thoughts on this? Pretty darn good, I'd say. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hi, how are you?

MARTIN: I'm doing well. So this is, like, a big deal, right? The NBA has been opposed to making sports betting legal for a long time. Why is Silver arguing that this should change?

PESCA: Well, all the leagues have. And the concern was for years that if the games weren't seen as on the up-and-up that would really damage the games. And sure, that's been true - you know, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and then point shaving in the 1950s with basketball.

But, you know, the modern age, if anyone wants to gamble, they could gamble. Have you looked around? And this is sort of undergirding Silver's argument that it would be naive to think that, in this modern world, that the actual league stances against gambling are having any effect or any good effect.

You know, he's essentially saying, great, so now we've driven gambling underground. So now, whatever, the mafia controls it or criminal elements control it. And also we, meaning the leagues, by implication, but also he argues for the public's sake, you, the tax beneficiaries, aren't getting anything. We should just admit what's going on and try to make the best of this situation.

MARTIN: So, you know, some people out there I imagine, though, would say what about people who have a problem - right - a gambling addiction? Doesn't making this legal make that more of a problem?

PESCA: It does. I mean, you can't deny that and Silver doesn't. And there is a certain portion of the population, you know, good surveys show that something like .6 to .8 percent of all adults, either in England, where this is prevalent - where legalized gambling is allowed on the English Premier League. You can even do it in the stadium from your cell phone. You know, there is the rate of addicted gambler.

I would just say this - that when you make casinos legal - it's not like someone's going to find a slot machine online. Some little, tiny versions of that do exist. But when you make casinos legal, when you make lotteries legal, that really spreads it.

I think sports gambling is pretty much already at a saturation point in the United States. It's just that it's not being acknowledged, and it is illegal. And the differences between United States and Europe in terms of the rates of addiction aren't really that different. So I don't know that making it legal changes things that much.

MARTIN: OK. So what about Adam Silver, the man, the commissioner? I mean, he's kind of carving out a different reputation for himself than previous commissioners by stepping out on these issues.

PESCA: He is. He is. He's younger. The way he handled the LA Clippers fiasco with Donald Sterling where he was very bold and a lot of people thought he broke with the way his predecessor David Stern would've done it was very impressive. So yeah, I mean, we don't know exactly why he did it. I just take him at his word that he looked at the evidence, and he doesn't feel like he has to be in line with the NFL. The NFL has put out a statement saying that's great. That's his opinion. We're not going to change our stance.

MARTIN: OK. You have a curveball?

PESCA: I do. I went and saw two 0-8 teams play football yesterday - Cornell against Columbia.

MARTIN: How was that?

PESCA: In fact - yeah. Columbia - I think there's a great argument that they're the worst team in college football because they were only averaging eight points a game and getting beaten by an average of 31 points. But what a game it was.

MARTIN: Was it?

PESCA: First of all - yes. Attorney General Eric Holder was there, and the Columbia band mocked him. And he kind of gave the two-handed wave like, oh, go home, guys. That was all in good fun. But the game was decided - Columbia goes down 21-nothing. But they mount a furious comeback, and they score four touchdowns unanswered.

But on the fourth one, instead of getting the extra point, the extra point is blocked. And it is returned by Cornell which is OK in college football. And so Cornell gets two points when you consider it a three point swing. And therefore the final score - Cornell winning by three points - was that bizarro crazy blocked extra point.

MARTIN: Plus did you get a free T-shirt or something?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, that's the thing. Any 0-8 team, if you throw a free T-shirt in the crowd, and your 5-year-old gets it and gives it to his 7-year-old brother. That's called a good football game. That's what you need. Take note, 0-8 teams.

MARTIN: Mike Pesca, slate.com. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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