Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution. It has been trying to be first in something else ever since. (Actually, for a time it was—although it did not advertise the fact. Until 1975 it had the highest state personal-income-tax rate in the nation.) So last week Delaware, 49th among the 50 states in square mileage and 47th in population, became the first to institute a government-run lottery scheme that will enable its citizenry, as well as out-of-staters, to bet on National Football League games through the purchase of computerized football cards. Delaware considers itself ingenious for devising this scheme, by means of which it figures to net $2 million this fall, and it expects other states to follow its lead.
The NFL, however, considers this Delaware first outrageous, a giant wart of ugliness on its otherwise beautiful game and, well, an all-round crummy idea. So a battery of NFL lawyers raced into U.S. District Court in Wilmington the other day, raising all kinds of objections. What the NFL wanted was a temporary restraining order against the Delaware lottery. The judge, Walter Stapleton, read the briefs and affidavits, listened to several hours of argument and said that at first blush it didn't look to him as though the Delaware plan would irreparably harm the NFL. At least not until a fuller hearing could be held. So he gave the state the green light.
The NFL intends to keep challenging Delaware in the courts, primarily on the grounds that pro football is its property, that it doesn't want Delaware or anyone else as a partner in gambling and that it is improper for the state to use the game for its own profit. This thinking follows the legal principle that you cannot reap what you have not sown. But Peter Simmons, Delaware's lottery director, says, "We don't want the game, just the scores." After Judge Stapleton's ruling, NFL attorney John Paul Reiner said pro football was "very disappointed." He added, "This was only the first quarter."
Maybe so. In the meantime, while the legal dispute continues as to whether Delaware can indeed proceed with the lottery, the state will be doing just that. Barring unexpected legal developments, two types of betting cards for the NFL's 14 season-opening games next weekend will go on sale this week. Under the Delaware system, a bettor can risk from $1 to $20 on one card and from $1 to $10 on the other. On the first, called Football Bonus, the investor must pick either seven or 14 winners; on the other, called Touchdown, he must pick the winners of any three, four or five games, along with the approximate point spreads—0 to 7 points, 8 to 14 points, 15 points and over. Because the wagering will be conducted under a pari-mutuel system, bettors will not know their potential payoff; in fact, winnings will not be paid until Wednesday. (Bookies use football cards with stated odds and guaranteed payment ratios. And bookies pay up instantly.) To discourage big-time gamblers, the Delaware pari-mutuel pool will offer the bettors a return of only about 45% of the total amount wagered. Horse tracks return some 80%.
Thirteen states conduct regular lotteries, and a number of them are rubbing their hands in anticipation of a Delaware-style sports gambling deal. New York and Connecticut, which already have off-track betting, are especially interested, and Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts are curious. Nevada and Montana permit legal parlor-type gambling on NFL games, but the NFL views Nevada as a shame, and Montana of little import because nobody lives there. Delaware, though, concerns the NFL's image makers and lawyers because of its location in the backyard of three pro teams—Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore.
What bothers the NFL is that Delaware is going into the gambling business directly, whereas the Nevada and Montana operations are private businesses subject to state and local controls. The NFL notes that there are arguments for and against the legalization of marijuana, but that "none would argue that the states should themselves go into such businesses in an entrepreneurial way."
Another NFL argument against the lottery is that gamblers will attempt to fix games. However, Washington Quarterback Randy Johnson says, "I don't think you can fix a football game. One guy just doesn't mean that much. Cripes, the other night I completed two of 13 passes and we still almost won. That's like trying to throw a game but you can't." Nonetheless, Norm Veasey, another NFL lawyer, frets, "This will change the focus from the scoreboard to the tote board."
A survey of players and coaches produced a strong negative reaction to legalized betting. Dallas Tackle Ralph Neely objects because "I feel it's demeaning to me. I'm the same as the horse." Miami Placekicker Garo Yepremian says there are so many other things to bet on that "you don't have to bet on football games." Don Klosterman, general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, maintains that legal betting would make things so volatile that moats would have to be dug around the fields and bodyguards assigned to the coaches.
Despite such fears, the NFL has difficulty trying to explain that while bookie and office-type gambling—both illegal—haven't hurt pro football, legalized gambling will. Rozelle says that occasional betting in an office pool "is far removed from the kind of habitual systematic gambling involving additional millions of people that government sponsorship would undoubtedly generate." Delaware's Simmons says, "We've tried to make this as much like an office pool as possible."
Another NFL contention is that legal sports betting will create a new class of gamblers. Whatever, Rozelle is certain of one thing. "The world knows no less rational person than a losing bettor," he says.