There is no shortage of good storylines in the National Football League’s playoffs this season. Patrick Mahomes is fighting back from a recent injury in an attempt to win a second Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs. Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals are looking to avenge their defeat in last year’s championship. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles, with Jalen Hurts under center, played as arguably the best team in the NFL this season. Hot on their heels are the San Francisco 49ers. Their quarterback, Brock Purdy, was the last overall pick in the league’s draft last spring; he’s now the team’s last best hope to win its first title in three decades.
But if you’ve watched any of this NFL season’s action unfold—or any professional sports games in recent years, for that matter—it might have been hard to concentrate on what happened on the playing field. That’s because every pro sports game is now surrounded by the dull roar of sports betting ads. The Manning family (yes, even Cooper) thinks you should use Caesars Sportsbook. Rob Gronkowski recommends FanDuel. Those are only two of the NFL’s seven “official sports betting partners”—legal sports books that get to advertise during NFL games in exchange for giving the league a slice of the pie.
If it feels like the constant onslaught of celebrities telling you to download various betting apps (here comes Drew Brees urging you to “live your bet life”) or yammering on about in-game parlays came out of nowhere, that’s because it did. And you can thank—or, perhaps more accurately, blame—former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the Supreme Court of the United States for that.
For more than a century, gambling was the one great mortal sin in American sports. Teams and fans could and can forgive bigotry, harassment, and even some serious crimes by players and coaches over the years. But betting on the outcomes of games was the brightest red line there was. Most of the people on Major League Baseball’s century-old lifetime ban list are there for betting on games, including would-be Hall of Famer Pete Rose. Point-shaving scandals in the 1950s and 1960s account for most of the players on the National Basketball Association’s version of that list.
Fears of gambling scandals ran so deep that Las Vegas, one of the country’s largest cities and media markets, did not obtain a major professional sports franchise until 2017, when the National Hockey League allowed the creation of the Vegas Golden Knights. The unspoken assumption for many years was that it was too dangerous to risk placing a team in a city where gambling is not just legalized but the economic lifeblood of the community. The NFL followed up in 2020 by moving the then Oakland Raiders into a sleek black stadium right next to the Las Vegas Strip.
Like most other forms of gambling, sports betting was largely illegal throughout the U.S. in the modern era outside the state of Nevada. Only a handful of states allowed licensed casinos within their borders, let alone sports books. Things only began to change in 1988 when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to create a legal framework for tribal governments to operate casinos on tribal land. While those casinos were still forbidden from operating sports books, that shift—and the tantalizing prospect of greater revenue without raising taxes—nonetheless led some states to consider relaxing their own bans of some forms of gambling in the early 1990s.
Of them, sports betting was the most closely watched for its outsize popularity and for its potential impact on one of the country’s primary forms of entertainment. The four major leagues—MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL—urged lawmakers to crack down on it. To head off any potential sea change among the states, Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, also known as PASPA. The law effectively banned commercial sports betting across the country with a handful of exceptions for states if they took advantage of a one-year window to keep it legalized.
Nevada and three other states kept some form of legalized sports betting during that grace period. But New Jersey did not. A coalition of professional sports leagues, religious groups, and law enforcement lobbyists persuaded state lawmakers not to take action within PASPA’s one-year window, overcoming an intense multibillion-dollar lobbying campaign by the state’s gaming industry. Support for legalized sports betting in the Garden State never fully went away in the aftermath of the decision as New Jersey casinos watched their Nevada brethren reap the rewards.
In the 2010s, state lawmakers and the local gaming industry rallied around challenging PASPA itself. In 2011, the state legislature put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide whether they wanted sports betting in the state despite the federal ban. Christie, who was governor at the time, took a pugnacious approach to the policy fight. “If someone wants to stop us, then let them try to stop us,” he declared the following year. “We want to work with the casinos and horse racing industry to get it implemented. Am I expecting there may be legal action taken against us to prevent it? Yes. But I have every confidence we’re going to be successful. We intend to go forward.”
After voters approved the amendment in 2012, the state duly passed a law to regulate sports betting. The NCAA and the major sports leagues then filed a lawsuit to challenge it in federal court for violating PASPA. At the time, the leagues adamantly opposed legalized sports betting anywhere but Nevada because of the corruption risks that it posed to pro sports. (While the NCAA had teams in Nevada, it shared the leagues’ broader concerns.) It had only been a few years, after all, since NBA referee Tim Donaghy was arrested by federal agents for betting on games he officiated and manipulating the point spread to cash in.
New Jersey argued that the law’s structure, which forbade state legislatures from passing certain laws, violated the Tenth Amendment and the anti-commandeering doctrine. The Tenth Amendment generally holds that states retain any powers not granted to Congress or otherwise denied by the Constitution. The anti-commandeering doctrine is a principle of federalism that typically prohibits the federal government from forcing or “commandeering” state officials to enforce federal laws.
Federal courts rejected that logic for the 2012 law and struck it down for violating PASPA, concluding that the state couldn’t raise an anti-commandeering claim to defend an affirmative step it had taken of its own volition. In response, state lawmakers went the other direction in 2014 and repealed portions of state law that otherwise prohibited sports betting in New Jersey casinos. When the leagues again sued the state to stop the 2014 law, the state told the Supreme Court that Congress couldn’t commandeer state lawmakers to do certain things.
“When Congress dictates the content of state law, it undermines the responsiveness of state governments to their electorates, blurs the lines of accountability between the citizens and their state and federal governments, and disrupts the balance between those governments that protects individual liberty,” the state argued in its brief for the court. New Jersey also claimed its laws were passed “in response to its citizenry’s urgent demands to decriminalize and regulate sports wagering,” framing it as an issue of democratic governance.
In a 7–2 decision in 2018, the Supreme Court agreed with the state and struck down the law. “[PASPA] unequivocally dictates what a state legislature may and may not do,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. “And this is true under either our interpretation or that advocated by [the NCAA] and the United States. In either event, state legislatures are put under the direct control of Congress. It is as if federal officers were installed in state legislative chambers and were armed with the authority to stop legislators from voting on any offending proposals. A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine.”
That’s when the floodgates opened. Since the court’s ruling in Murphy v. NCAA five years ago—the case title was renamed after Christie’s successor left office—a supermajority of 37 states now allow sports betting in some form, whether online or in person. This happened neither by accident nor because of any genuine demand by the American electorate, but because of a high-priced lobbying blitz by sports betting companies in statehouses across the country. An investigative series by The New York Times last fall found that the industry “showered” lawmakers in gifts, donations, and rosy projections about potential tax revenue that has, thus far, failed to manifest.
Gambling, when properly regulated and controlled, is not necessarily a danger to the public. States like New Jersey and Nevada have extensive experience in regulating the gaming industry and impose clear boundaries within their jurisdictions. In states that are newer to the industry, however, ramshackle regulatory structures are falling short. The Times’ series, for example, also reported on the growth of sports betting “partnerships” with college athletic programs, which encourage college students to join apps and make “risk-free” bets to build a future customer base. It also uncovered how the sports betting industry is teaming up with figures who encourage overly risky bets and unhealthy gambling practices, as well as backgrounds that wouldn’t survive the scrutiny of the Nevada Gaming Commission.
It’s impossible to know if any of the Supreme Court justices favor the proliferation of sports betting as a policy matter. For Christie, however, the high court victory is a legacymaker of sorts for a two-term governor who left after multiple controversies. The Sports Betting Hall of Fame, which exists, inducted Christie into its ranks in 2019. “They laughed at me,” he told the National Council of Legislators From Gaming States that same year, referring to the pro sports leagues that resisted his legalization campaign. “Every one of them laughed at me. They’re not laughing anymore.”
The greatest effects of what Christie wrought are felt by those who don’t realize that there is no such thing as a “risk-free” bet or who think they can win back what they lost. Pew Research, citing data from a gambling-addiction organization, reported last year that at least 60 percent of high school students gambled for money within the preceding year, an increase it attributed to the pandemic and the rise of sports betting apps. The unprecedented ease of sports betting has raised concerns among gambling-addiction experts that a boom in cases could soon be apparent as a growing number of states turn to legalization.
Even those who have never placed a bet in their life can appreciate that something has changed in pro sports, and not necessarily for the better. It seems inevitable now that one of the point-shaving or match-fixing scandals that bedeviled pro sports in the early twentieth century will happen again. And even if they don’t, the relentless push to place bets and cover the line robs sports fans of something as well. It’s not enough just to root for a team anymore, to be frustrated by their defeats and proud of their victories. Now you have to monetize it as well—or, at best, sit through an endless stream of propaganda from those pitching this latest get-rich-quick scheme. Something has been lost, and we didn’t even realize it until it was long gone.