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This was a revolutionary week in American sport. One of our major leagues finally managed to make it past 1919. This happened when the National Basketball Association allowed its women's league to relocate a failed franchise to a casino, the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
Naturally, this brought on crocodile tears and breast-beating from sanctimonious moralists across the land. Oh, the shame of it: impressionable professional athletes actually playing under the same roof as the reprobates who crank slot machines! Last week a doomsaying New York Times columnist lamented that such a pernicious step was the "worst news under the sun."
The Times also doesn't see fit to print the news known as point spreads, on the Tagliabuean theory that sports fans cannot deal with the hard truth. It was NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, of course, who refused to allow commercials for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority that would have appeared on the Super Bowl telecast. The decision was so absurd it didn't even make the commissioner into a Comstock; rather, he just came off as small and clueless.
It is also true that the NBA commissioner, David Stern, has been just as childish in the past. He wouldn't permit a franchise for Toronto until NBA games were taken off sports books in Ontario. And baseball is historically hysterical on the subject of gambling. The defiantly coarse personality of Pete Rose has obscured the larger truth, that the penalty against him for wagering on baseball has been absolutely draconian.
Is it even unsuitable to bet on your own self? Illicit, perhaps, in Rose's case, but jockeys are permitted to do it, and we find it reassuring that an athlete cares so much. In any case, it is hardly a universal taboo and it is often an accepted part of the competition. Golf would go the way of quoits if there weren't Nassaus. For American sports leagues to stretch to outlandish lengths to pretend to insulate themselves from the make-believe evils of gambling is transparent and puerile.
The straw man is the fix. To hear the leagues carry on, beady-eyed fixers are everywhere, ready to lure well-paid professionals into throwing games. Once, in a distant era, yes, this was common—and not only with the Black Sox. But has there been serious talk of a fixed baseball game in the past 80 years? The last known serious attempt to fix an NFL game was in 1946, and it failed. The NBA did suffer Jack Molinas, a singular Lucifer of an athlete, but he was banned half a century ago. The odds (excuse me) of anybody pulling off a fix now in a major league game are off the board (beg your pardon). As a point of fact, the diligence of the books in Vegas themselves serve more to protect sport than to menace it. Sports commissioners worrying about fixed games is like President Bush fearing an attack by the Barbary pirates.
Drugs threaten the integrity of our sports. Booze and babes will periodically affect performance. But gambling today is a by-product of pro sport, not a risk to it, and it is nonsensical of the major leagues to carry on with policies as if the same economic situations and temptations exist as they did back when the indigent Black Sox took a dive.