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Betting and sports go together so well that they should be legally joined. Professional athletes should be allowed — read: strongly encouraged — to bet on their games. Currently, all pro sports leagues forbid player gambling on games. The leagues fear that the players might try to win bets, not games, and that those who are good at games but bad at bets might be corrupted by bookmakers. OK, allowing athletes to gamble could pose problems — if only in keeping track of all those bets. I’ve played golf with a guy who, in the middle of a round, bet me on whether a flying bird would land in a tree. But all choices are comparative. How much better is the modern salary system at promoting team play and maximum player effort? PUT YOUR MONEY DOWN The biggest problem in pro sports today is not the rampant drugs, groupies, and lawlessness; it’s that compensation is distributed by individual player contracts, not by team victories. So player incentives don’t correspond to team goals. Team play requires sacrifice and sublimation. Do players on salary drives sacrifice personal accomplishment for the team? Maybe sometimes, but their financial incentives point the other way. Now compare this to a game in which player earnings come from bets, such as a weekend golf foursome. The primary bet a golfer makes is the team wager. A golfer might bet 25 bucks and hope to double up. For pro athletes with entourages to support, maybe $25,000 per man, winner-take-all, for a half-million-dollar team bet per game is more realistic. That kind of cash would align monetary incentives perfectly with team goals. Indeed, team play wouldn’t be thought of as a “sacrifice” at all. Those weekend golfers do all they can legally to help their teammates, and everybody on the winning team takes his money whether he made the winning putt or just helped line it up. Side bets might further add to the excitement. Players could wager against certain opponents on scoring totals, for instance. But these bets would never be contrary to the team interest — because if they were, the player would be betting against his own stake in the team bet. That’s why golfers’ side wagers are always consistent with the game bet, and indeed most commonly increase the leverage of the main bet. Miracle shots from the sand or close tee shots on par threes not only win the side cash; they make team victory more likely. Even the occasional instance of a golfer aiming an approach shot at the bunker to try to win the ubiquitous “sandy” bet (which pays off for pars from the sand) is done where victory is lost and only miracle shots can salvage some value. So maybe a pro would try to augment his personal statistics at team expense when the game was essentially won or lost. But wouldn’t that be a good thing? If the Magic lead the Celtics by 30 late in the third quarter, wouldn’t a $5,000 side bet on a scoring duel between Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce make an otherwise meaningless final quarter worth watching? T-Mac and The Truth staying in the game, going head-to-head, their teammates (for a cut) double-teaming on defense to help ensure side-bet victory. No more garbage time. EVENING THE ODDS But would all teams willingly wager? Golf has the handicap system, which allows mismatched players to make plausible bets. How would other sports address talent differentials? The answer, again, is to allow gambling — lots of it. All pro sports leagues desire team parity. It’s a joint good that ensures competitive games. To achieve it, the leagues use various mechanisms such as draft order, with the worst team going first (thus creating tangible incentives to lose games — in other words, the absolutely stupidest league rule in the world), waiver claims, salary caps, weighted schedules, and so forth. Abolish all that. Just let teams bid on players in a free market, allocating percentages of the team bet as inducements. Teams will want to sign great players, but they’ll also want to make sure that their opponents are just as good as they are. Too many good players on one team will render opponents unwilling to make large bets, thus lessening the action. It will also mean too many players demanding a bigger share of the pot. The best players will want to be distributed throughout the league to better command their large percentages. Teams will trade to keep the wagers substantial and the loot spread around. Limitless, persistent gambling will also end the tiresome cult of the manager. In today’s pro sports, with their antiquated salary practices, managers constantly have to coax spoiled athletes with million-dollar contracts to please take that Band-Aid off their little toe and get in the damn game. Managers with this kind of persuasive talent can be expensive. And note this: Even though the team’s chances of victory are hurt by the shirker, few other players intercede, preferring to let the manager try to correct wayward teammates. Why should they care? Their contract isn’t affected. But under a regime in which compensation is tied to bets, any player who shirks will cost his teammates big money. On their own, players will rein in the delinquents, pass the ball to the better shooters, and even take themselves out of the game if a superior player is ready on the bench. Most teams, acting sensibly, will fire their manager, relying on bookmakers and other professional gamblers to oversee the requisite pregame wagering. Managers, freed from the confines of sports, could then become full-time psychotherapists — their true calling. SAY IT AIN’T SO What about pathetic athletic losers throwing games to earn huge bribes from their shady bookmaking friends? This is unlikely to happen. A player taking the opponent’s side would be betting against his own $25,000 contribution to the team wager. And if the player declined to bet on his own team, would his teammates trust him? Not betting would be correctly understood as disloyalty, as a decision to allocate less than one’s best efforts to winning. The nonbettor would find himself riding the bench, thereby diminishing his chances of corrupting the game. So any bribe to throw a game would have to be generous enough to make up for the player’s team-bet loss. In addition, the push to keep teams even will ensure that players change sides often enough to worry about a reputation for disloyalty. A player caught throwing a game would be forever mistrusted. Thus the prospect of a one-time windfall from a thrown game would have to be weighed against the long-term diminution in betting gains. It would be rare that a player’s entire career winnings could be capitalized in one “shut-down” bet. Of course, it could still happen. Again, the choice is comparative. Under current compensation practices, athletes can still throw a game. Indeed, the fact that they lack immediate financial incentives to win games makes forfeiture of loyalty more marginally profitable. But what about rookies? you wonder. Where would they get the large sums needed to place lucrative wagers on upcoming games? From winning their bets in college, of course. Only winning collegiate athletes, as proved by their large bankrolls, should be allowed to play pro sports anyway. CARDS ON THE TABLE Here are 11 (my lucky number) applications of our new legal rule: 1. Not only should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame, he should immediately be made commissioner of Major League Baseball to spearhead the league’s transition to all-betting player compensation. 2. Even under the current compensation scheme, players should never be disciplined for betting in favor of their own teams. Such bets only further align player interests with team goals. In fact, if I were a general manager, I would immediately trade away any player who didn’t show a heartfelt interest in taking on some heavy action. 3. Risk-averse players (aka nonbettors) should also be traded before they completely ruin team morale. In a short period of time, all the risk-averse players will likely congregate on the same team, which team will likely purchase insurance against betting losses, enabling these babies to make modest bets and still play pro sports. 4. After firing all the managers, fire all the general managers, too. Most owners are self-made millionaires who have placed bets all their lives. They can negotiate team wagers and trade players to equalize talent levels themselves. 5. No more point spreads. Just track the player wagers to find out what Tom Brady really thinks the Patriots’ chances are against the Jets. 6. Pay off the bets immediately after the game. I want to see the losing team handing over large wads of cash and the winners dancing around waving Benjamins at the crowd. 7. Demand absolutely huge television contracts, payable in weekly installments, basically doubling the payoff on everyone’s bet. Las Vegas has bonus payoffs all the time, and they’re real crowd-pleasers. We’re talking winner-take-all football every week of the season. What a reality show! The networks would bankrupt themselves to get the rights. 8. Hire at least 15 extra referees for every game. Like I said, winner-take-all football. Beef up venue security, equip law enforcement personnel with anti-riot gear, check Amber alert systems, double hospital staffs. 9. End the prohibition on performance-enhancing drugs. I’ve never been quite convinced by live rat tests, anyway. Someone has to establish the lethal-dose levels, so why not hugely compensated volunteers? Of course, this has nothing to do with gambling. 10. Consider applying the beauty of bets to other contests of paramount interest, like global conflicts (the United States should put North Korea “all in” immediately), border enforcement (take the illegal aliens over the Border Patrol, no matter what odds you get), and Miss Universe pageants (bet on the Earthling; it’s fixed, trust me). 11. Demand Pete Rose run for national elected office. The man’s ahead of his time. Jeffrey Standen is a professor of law at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected].

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