‘Athletes Aren’t Roulette Chips’: Bill Bradley Speaks Out on Gambling in Sports

William W. Bradley, 74, served in the US Senate from 1979 to 1997 representing the state of New Jersey. Before his time in the Senate, he was an All-American basketball player at Princeton, a US Olympic gold medalist in 1964, and a ten year NBA player with the New York Knicks from 1967—1977 during which time they won two NBA championships. In 1982, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He currently is managing director of Allen & Company LLC.

In the Senate, he was the force behind the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, known as the Bradley Act. This bill, which outlawed sports betting—with the exception of some states—was deemed unconstitutional last month by the US Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision. I interviewed Bill Bradley for his thoughts about the Supreme Court decision

Dave Zirin: Please give your reaction to the Supreme Court ruling on sports gambling.

Bill Bradley: I think it was an unfortunate ruling. I think it was a ruling that had no basis in what sport really is. I think that it was, once again, the Supreme Court being kind of nit-picking, and having a small-minded reading of the law, without understanding the implication for society as a whole.

When you repeal sports betting, the ban on sports betting, you open up betting in states, because there will never [again] be a national law. The year there’s a national law, I’ll take you to dinner.

And, therefore, each state will have it’s own [gambling industry]. Now you can bet on high-school games. You could bet on AAU games with 14-year olds. You can bet on college games. There’s no prohibition whatsoever. And so various states would have to establish a law, if they wanted to to curb this. If they didn’t you could have betting on anything because the national law says that it’s open.

What this reminds me of, quite frankly, is [the Supreme Court Rulings on] Citizens United where, the Court made a decision that money is speech. They came up with this convoluted decision on Citizens United that ends up greasing the skids for more and more money in politics and it’s destroying the democracy. They had a very, very narrow reading of what is speech. It also reminds me of the Voting Rights Case, where they invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, on the grounds of, well, there is no discrimination anymore. And thus was born the movement to suppress votes in this country. The day after the Supreme Court ruled on that issue, because there was no more discrimination, North Carolina and Texas passed laws that were extremely discriminatory. If you take what Koch state legislatures have done between 2012 and 2014, in 41 states, they introduced roughly 120 laws to narrow who could vote and how people could vote. So, this is the same kind of thing, in my view. It’s with no understanding what is going to be the impact on society. The court says, “Well, this is really a state issue.”

DZ: What do you make of the argument that this will help clean up the black market for gambling? Do you buy that at all?

BB: No. I don’t buy that. I mean, what’s going to happen, particularly if they have betting on college in basketball, is you’re going to have scandals like in the 1950s and 1960s. When there’s a lot of money at stake—and there is—and you have players who are not going to make it in the pros, but who could maybe have an impact on the outcome of a game. That’s my big worry.

The only way that it is cleaned up is if there was a national commission and it was regulated by the national commission. But even then, I don’t think there should be betting in college or high school or AAU. I think it should be only pros. And, you know, the NBA’s position is, “Oh, well we want a national law and the league should get a certain percent of the revenue.” Well, that’s never going to happen!

DZ: Why do you think there’s so few dissenting voices on this ruling? It’s just been this chorus of praise.

BB: Because people see dollar signs. I mean, the whole casino industry could disguise itself, and states will buy the argument that this will generate so much revenue, that this will allow them to take care of small children and the elderly. But it’s an illusion.

DZ: What do you think are the next steps for voters and legislators who oppose sports gambling? Is it lost at this point? Or are there things that people can do?

BB: Well, you’re not going to pass a national law, banning this, that’s one thing you could do. But then you’d be banning it in all states and four already have it, so that’s probably not in the cards. States would just have to pass laws that they are not going to be a part of the casino industry and if you have a sports-betting operation, it will not be related to casinos. I don’t know how you do that, but that’s one thing.

If people are against this, they can understand the dynamics in their particular state and let their voices be heard.

DZ: And you don’t buy the argument that people are gambling anyway so we might as well make it legal.

BB: I don’t buy the argument that people are doing it anyway, because people aren’t doing it. Obviously, there are people that gamble on sports. But there’s a difference between trying to do it in the dark world and suddenly having the whole thing opened up and everybody contemplating this, right? You know, you go to a game and suddenly you’re cheering for your home team and you’re ahead by eight points. Then you miss a shot, and everybody cheers! Because the spread was seven points. I just don’t buy it.

People are looking at this, considering second- and third-order effects. The second- and third-order effects on college will be a college scandal, I predict. I don’t know when it will come, but, it’s inevitable.

DZ: What are some of those third-tier issues?

BB: In my own case, having been an athlete, I don’t like being considered a roulette chip. And this is the only law I ever passed that had anything to do with sports. I hope that somebody out there is listening to this, because, I think the only people that are happy here are the casino people.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
Become an Edge of Sports Sustainer (Click Here)


Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com