Several members of the House Judiciary Committee suggested Thursday that they would support new federal regulation of sports gambling, though the specifics remained murky.
Four months after the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling paving the way for legal sports betting nationwide, Congress held its first hearing on the matter. Over 90 minutes, members of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations pressed a group of witnesses about various potential legal safeguards in the wake of the high court’s decision to overturn a decades-old federal law that limited most sports gambling to Nevada.
The day’s biggest question: Who should safeguard the games, while also looking out for athletes and bettors?
“I think the one thing that all would agree on is that for Congress to do nothing is the worst possible alternative,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the subcommittee’s chairman. “So this means we have some work to do … because I’m afraid if we don’t, there are some people who will get hurt, and hurt very badly.”
Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia now offer some form of legalized sports gambling. A handful of other states have legalized but not yet implemented betting on pro and amateur sports, and more states are expected to take up bills this fall.
Sports entities have favored federal oversight, while gaming groups have generally preferred state regulation. The NFL was the only professional league represented at Thursday’s hearing, and Jocelyn Moore, a communication executive with the league, voiced support for federal oversight.
“We’re asking for core federal standards,” she said. “We’re not asking for sweeping federal legislation.”
Among the league’s requests: uniform standards for state regulatory bodies, a 21-year-old age minimum for bettors, a requirement that official league data be used by sportsbooks, established protocol for sportsbooks to communicate across state lines about abnormal betting patterns and a limit on in-game prop bets — like whether a field goal will be made or missed — that could be easily manipulated.
One sticking point was a so-called integrity fee, a small percentage of each bet that some leagues have said they would like to collect to fund oversight efforts.
“As we go forward, we believe the federal government is the only entity that can protect the integrity of the game,” Moore said.
Sara Slane of the American Gaming Association, which favors state-by-state regulation, responded that more safeguards could be in place if more people were allowed to bet legally, and that additional taxes on casinos could force them out of business.
“In order for us in the legal and regulated market to compete with the illegal operators, we have to be able to offer odds; we have to be able to offer bets,” she said. “We want to move those consumers to the legal, regulated market. Everything that is happening in the illegal market, there’s no promotion of integrity.”
That tension persisted through much of the hearing as lawmakers grappled with their concerns about gambling while acknowledging they could not prevent it. Another question: How can a regulated market compete with offshore sportsbooks that annually take millions of dollars in bets?
Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, urged the lawmakers to limit gambling as much as possible, including by restricting advertising. “A trillion dollars of wealth is going to be lost in the next eight years by the American people on government-sanctioned gambling,” he said.
“I agree with you,” responded Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). “But we’ve got to do what’s possible.”
If Thursday did not produce any definitive outcomes, the hearing at least offered a window into some of the issues that lawmakers value.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) expressed concern about protections for players and referees, who could be under newfound scrutiny if more money is wagered on games. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) wondered about unpaid college athletes, asking whether they were vulnerable to undue influence.
Jon Bruning of the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling suggested children could be targeted by online gambling operators and urged lawmakers to limit such outlets. Restrictions to online sports wagering, though, could make it harder for legalized sports betting to grow, and could keep customers in offshore markets.
Sensenbrenner opened the proceedings by noting the more publicized hearing happening across Capitol Hill, where the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexual assault.
“We have a mostly empty press table over there,” Sensenbrenner said. “However, this is going to be an issue that is very, very important in terms of making a determination in how professional and amateur sports are played.”