It's Time to Consider Legalized Sports Betting

 OF ALL the quasi-legal vices, gambling is the quasi-est. It's almost impossible to look the other way. Everywhere you turn, someone's looking for action. You can bet more than half of sports fans do it in some way or another. After the Super Bowl comes March Madness, and nowadays rotisserie leagues have made major league baseball more bettable than ever.Football betting suits the National Football League just fine, for instance, as long as it's illegal, since it generates a lot of fan interest while allowing the league to pretend that the billions of dollars wagered on the outcome of its games have nothing to do with the game's popularity.It all works so well there hardly seems any reason to change the status quo. Especially since the only real choices are impossible (enforcing the statutes against illegal gambling) or possibly hazardous (legalization).But maybe legalizing sports gambling isn't a bad idea. One argument against it is that players would be more inclined to yield to the temptation to throw games or shave points. But the fact gambling was illegal didn't hinder Shoeless Joe Jackson or Pete Rose. Or look at it this way: Horse racing may not be the cleanest sport around, but who'd argue that it's less corrupt under government auspices than it would be otherwise?What offends most of us is bookmakers making money off athletes and compulsive gamblers. But maybe the real problem is we shouldn't have so much invested -- financially and emotionally -- in professional athletes. Exalted status as role models doesn't seem to be what they or we really want.   If allowing sports to live with legal gaming is complicated, figuring out the role government should play seems even knottier. Our laws embody a hypocrisy when it comes to gambling, since most state governments run lotteries. Whether these amount to an extra tax on people least able to afford it, as many claim, there's little doubt they are sucker bets for ticket buyers.And, although one of the most compelling arguments on behalf of legalized gambling is that it would open a taxable stream of revenue to governments, the figures reflect that government becomes less a disinterested party and more a greedy taker, keeping all the proceeds for itself. Net sales for all state lotteries in 1996 were $40 billion. If government has a hankering to turn our worst impulses magically to civic gold, why stop at bookmaking? Why not, for example, allow people to place bets along with their votes at the polling booth every presidential election?Maybe it's time for the New York State Legislature to consider not just the hypocrisy of using OTB to "fight illegal gambling" but the tax benefits of legalized sports gaming. If the idea of your relatives and neighbors being able to place bets over the Internet disturbs you, consider this: There are plenty of ways to legally make committing a particular vice more trouble than it's worth without making it a felony. In this case, New York could legalize sports bookmaking and then do what governments do best anyway: Tax the thing and throw so much paper at it that it becomes more of a nuisance than it's worth. Even if you hate the idea of legal gambling, it's preferable to the self-righteous hypocrisy of allowing governments to pretend they're fighting crime for us when they're really helping with the chiseling. If we can't beat vice and we don't wish to allow criminals and bloodsuckers to profit from it, let's at least find a way to regulate it, tax it and control it with sensible, enforceable laws.