Betting On Sports

The Supreme Court made a lot of important rulings earlier this year.  One ruling that got a bit lost in the shuffle may end up having an important impact on states across the country, colleges that play big-time sports, and professional sports franchises, too.

300px-eight_men_bannedIn May, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that effectively banned gambling on sports, with some exceptions, in all states but Nevada.  The federal law, called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, was based on concern that allowing widespread gambling might undercut sports as a form of wholesome entertainment.  Nevada, which already permitted gambling on sports, was allowed to continue, but other states were largely barred from doing so.  New Jersey passed a state law allowing gambling on sports and then challenged the federal law, and the Supreme Court sided with New Jersey, ruling  that while Congress has the power to regulate sports betting at the federal level, it can’t dictate to states what their individual laws must be.

Why did New Jersey decide to challenge the federal law?  Do you really need to ask?  Of course, the answer is money.  New Jersey’s casinos were struggling, and it objected to Nevada having a federally sanctioned monopoly on sports gambling.  If sports gambling were allowed in its casinos, New Jersey reasoned, it might promote tourism and increase tax revenues.  And these days, states are all about increasing their revenues.

With the Supreme Court ruling, Ohio legislators are now looking at whether Ohio, too, should legalize gambling on sports.  One argument made in favor is that many Ohioans already bet on sports through the underground economy — so why not take the activity above ground and get some tax revenue from it?  But the existence of the illicit sports betting also poses a challenge, because states that want to legalize the activity in order to earn revenue have to figure out how to make legal gambling as easy and attractive as calling the local bookie.  One issue for legislators to consider, for example, is whether Ohio should allow on-line gambling, so long as the website has some Ohio presence and the state gets a cut of the action.  Or, should such betting be limited to licensed casinos?

And colleges, universities, and professional sports leagues are holding their breath, too.  They opposed New Jersey’s effort to overturn the federal law, because confining legal sports gambling to Las Vegas kept it separate and apart from 99.9 percent of campuses, stadiums, and sports arenas.  Now legalized gambling on sports will be out in the open, and there are concerns that gamblers hoping to get an edge might bribe professional and amateur athletes to throw a game or do something to affect the point spread.

College sports administrators and professional sports leagues are worried about another Black Sox scandal — who can blame them?  After all, it’s been 100 years, and the 1919 American League champions from Chicago are still called the Black Sox.

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Training Session

Today I took the train from Newark’s Penn Station to Trenton for meetings, then back again this afternoon. We boarded an Amtrak regional train, which meant that we stopped at pretty much every station along the way. (One of the stops, aptly named “MetroPark,” appears to be a giant web of parking garages and surface lots and is one of the busiest stops of all.)

The train is a bit more expensive than traveling by car, but for the Uptight Traveler — that’s me — it’s a lot less stressful. You don’t need to hassle with New Jersey traffic and risk missing your meeting because of gridlock, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and you can work while you ride. Add in a short walk from the Trenton Station to my ultimate destination, to provide a little fresh air and exercise, and you’ve got a decent business travel experience.

We don’t have any rail service in Columbus, so any train trip is a bit of an adventure. I liked my small taste of commuting, East Coast style.

Today’s Travel Tribulations

The travel day started uneventfully.  I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Newark.  The plane loaded and left on time, and actually landed in Newark about 20 minutes early.

Then, it all went horribly wrong.

5644ef75112314303e8b4807-750-563Because we were early, and because the airlines never want to leave a gate unoccupied, of course there was a departing plane at our gate.  So we waited for the plane to leave.  Then the captain announced that there were a bunch of other planes looking to use the same runway, so we would have to wait for the runway to clear.  Then — and this was the unbelievable part — the captain came on the intercom again and let us know that the captain of a plane in front of us had pulled into our gate by mistake, and the ground crew would have to back that plane out and reposition it before we could be towed into our gate area.  All told, we sat on the ground at the Newark airport for almost an hour.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but for the guy sitting next to me.  He was one of those guys who answers his cell phone using his hands-free option, so everyone around him can hear his incredibly important calls.  He was upset to begin with, because we all got to hear that there was some kind of billing snafu at his business, and as the delays mounted he got increasingly agitated — first muttering, then loudly complaining, and finally throwing around f-bombs that didn’t exactly have a calming influence on the other passengers.  We all were inconvenienced by what had happened, but this ticking time bomb had to act like it was all about him.

Then my fellow passengers acted like jerks in the scrum to get the gate-checked bags, milling around rather than lining up and not caring if they blocked everybody behind.  And when I got to the taxi stand, a loud altercation between the cabdrivers broke out because one driver was accused of cutting in line.  As I settled into my cab, with a driver who’d just been engaged in a red-faced, gesturing shouting match featuring an unknown foreign language, I wondered what might happen next:  volcanic eruption?  earthquake?  Cats and dogs living together?  Mass hysteria?

I’m going to have to ask the Jersey Girl whether flying into Newark is always like this.

Pumping Gas In Oregon

In Ohio, self-serve gas stations became the norm more than 40 years ago.  I suppose there are some stations with full-service options available somewhere in the Buckeye State, but the overwhelming majority of service stations require you to get out of your car and pump your own gas.  That’s also been true in every other state that I’ve visited where I’ve used a car.

hqdefaultI’ve never been to Oregon, alas.  And apparently Oregon (along with New Jersey) has been the exception to this prevailing rule — until now.  Until this year, gas stations in rural Oregon have been required by state law to employ attendants to pump the gas.  Now, a new law has taken effect that permits self-service gas stations in some rural counties . . . and as the Washington Post and other news outlets are reporting, the reaction among Oregonians has been incredible, and hysterical.  When a TV station issued a tweet asking for reactions to the new law, Oregonians began claiming that they have no idea how to fuel their own cars and also revealing their deepest innermost fears about the issue.  Beleaguered Oregonians expressed concerns at being required to exit their cars on cold days, having to touch a gas pump that has been handled by other germy human beings, and failing to properly insert the gas pump nozzle into the tank and ending up reeking of gasoline.  Indeed, some responders claimed that “many people” aren’t even capable of operating a gas pump.  And thoughtful Oregonians also worried that gas station attendants would lose their jobs and become chronically unemployed, and that the elderly and people with small children would never be able to manage.

Of course, those of us who live in “self-serve states” have managed to pump our own gas for years, without dousing ourselves with hi-test, producing blazing infernos, or suffering from infectious epidemics caused by touching gas pumps.  Why, I’ve even pumped gas with two small children in the car!  Looking back on it now, I can see that it was quite an achievement, even though it seemed like no big deal at the time.

I wish Oregonians well in their efforts to survive the transition to self-serve gas.  And if you’re a self-serve stater who’s going to be visiting Oregon by car in the next few weeks, and on your visit you see puzzled people stopped at gas stations, wondering how to operate the pumps, will you please do the humane thing and lend them a hand?

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.

Chris Christie’s Rep

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finds himself trapped in a weird and growing scandal. It’s a huge potential problem for a man who apparently entertains visions of a run for the presidency, because the scandal goes to the very core of Christie’s reputation.

The scandal involves communications by a member of Christie’s staff in which she apparently instructed that two lanes on the George Washington Bridge that links New Jersey and New York City to be closed for no reason other than to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had not supported Christie’s recent reelection campaign. The unnecessary closures caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee and around the bridge and lots of anguish for travelers trapped in a commuting hell traffic snarl. There are apparently no emails or texts showing the Christie himself was directly aware of the decision to close the lanes to exact some political retribution, and in fact he denies knowledge of the actions and criticized the staffers once the communications were disclosed.

In New Jersey — a state that many associate with a highway, the New Jersey Turnpike — commuting, lane closures, and passages to New York City are serious stuff. But this grotesque misuse of power involves much higher stakes for Christie because it undercuts his image. Outside of New Jersey, he has a reputation as a kind of pragmatic populist — a bluff, plain-talking everyman who will get the job done for the people of his state, even if it means standing up to entrenched interests like teachers unions or enduring the criticism of the conservative wing of his own party. There is nothing pragmatic or populist about causing unnecessary angst and delays for New Jersey commuters to achieve some kind of cheap political payback, however. Indeed, it’s exactly the kind of stupid political stunt that you can imagine Christie blasting with his customary bluntness.

It remains to be seen whether there is evidence that Christie had any involvement in this incident, and his personal response to the incident and related investigation will tell a lot about its likely impact on his career. For now, the incident looks like it could be as permanently damaging for Christie’s rep as the disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov website has been to President Obama’s carefully cultivated image for cool competence. The difference is that President Obama isn’t going to be running for President in 2016.

To Each His Own Reality

This week there were gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.  Voters went to the polls, cast their ballots, and there were winners and losers.  Right?

Not so fast!  Apparently the number of actual votes received by candidates don’t tell the real story — at least, according to the losing party.

In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie won a crushing victory in a traditionally Democratic state.  Yes, but, the Democrats say, Christie is not a Tea Party Republican and the vote for him actually should be interpreted as a rebuke to Tea Party extremism.  In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe took back a governorship that had been in the hands of the GOP.  Yes, but, the Republicans say, his opponent turned an apparent landslide into a close contest in the weeks after the problems with the Affordable Care Act hit the news, and the vote really should be seen as a repudiation of “Obamacare.”  It’s silly, of course, to try to extrapolate the results of state elections, which often turn on state-specific scandals and superstorms, into some kind of national Rorschach test.  Clearly, though, nobody apparently accepts a loss as a loss anymore; every bad election result just provides a platform for spin, excuses, and sketchy rationalizations.

It’s one thing to take that approach with election results, but quite another to apply it to functioning government programs.  Republicans see the troubled Healthcare.gov website as yet another example of catastrophic governmental hubris and ineptitude, Democrats say Republicans should accept some of the blame because they have stoutly opposed the Affordable Care Act at every turn.  The parties have radically different views of the meaning of governmental debt, whether the economy is performing poorly or well, what constitutes poverty or need for governmental assistance, and countless other topics.

How are these people supposed to reach agreement on anything if they don’t seem to even occupy the same frame of reference?  To paraphrase a classic line originally directed at Cliff Clavin on Cheers:  “Republicans and Democrats, what color is the sky in your world?”