Silver takes a gamble

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In last Thursday’s edition of the New York Times, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took a bold stance, advocating for the legalization and regulation of sports gambling in America. While Silver’s idea is provocative and could theoretically open up new revenue streams for the NBA, sports gambling and its pitfalls could also diminish the integrity of pro basketball.

The NBA must be careful on this issue, as they are only recently emerging from the gambling-induced Tim Donaghy refereeing scandal. There is no doubt that a legitimate connection between the NBA and some kind of regulated betting system could prove to be lucrative, or at least increase television ratings. This possibility likely has Silver and other NBA stakeholders salivating at the prospects of millions of Americans legally putting money on games. But these profits should not be pursued without care, as the risks associated with directly tying the NBA to gambling could outweigh the benefits.

Gambling has plagued professional sports throughout history. Older American examples include baseball’s infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, paid off by underground gamblers, purposely lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Currently, however, international soccer is the best cautionary tale.

In his article, Silver notes that sports betting could make as much as $400 billion per year. Most of that money is currently changing hands based on the results of soccer games. FIFA, the governing body of professional international soccer, has failed to eradicate match fixing in games around the world, and their inefficacy has opened the door for criminal tampering with players and officials. This same fate could befall the NBA.

Gambling syndicates, which control billions in black market dollars, would undoubtedly try to influence the outcomes of games in order to take advantage of betting lines and make massive profits. All it takes is a player throwing a game or an official making biased calls to win a cash prize from a gambling syndicate to taint the legitimacy of the sport.

Silver’s argument for legalized gambling makes only passing reference to the presence of such a risk, instead focusing on the legal hoops that must be jumped through in order to make it happen. Of course, these legal hurdles are going to seem more pressing at the moment to gambling advocates, but Silver should instead be focused on whether the league will have the ability to keep the game free of gambling-related tampering.

Perhaps Silver does, indeed, have a plan. But at the current moment, it seems like a hastily cobbled together idea that needs to be further outlined. The NBA needs to precisely define its proposed relationshop to a legalized gambling system before moving any further.