The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will D.C. legalize sports gambling? ‘Everything is on the table,’ one lawmaker says.

Coming soon to D.C.? (John Locher/AP)

In November 1989, the D.C. lottery board came up with a rather daring way to raise revenue for the cash-strapped city without raising taxes or cutting city services: a “sports pool lottery,” in which players picked between four and 14 NFL games each week based on the point spreads. While not going as far as the single-game wagering offered then and now in Las Vegas, the idea replicated the “Sports Action” lottery game that was unveiled that year by the state of Oregon. It was, in essence, an attempt to bring a limited form of sports gambling to the nation’s capital, where the practice had long been outlawed.

It never got off the ground. After months of condemnation from pro sports leagues and other observers — The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon wrote that “it’s hard to imagine a more irresponsible idea” — the D.C. Council killed the proposal in May 1990, saying it hurt the city’s chances of acquiring a Major League Baseball franchise. (It certainly didn’t help all that much, either — the Nationals didn’t arrive for another 15 years.)

Last week, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1992 federal law that limited sports gambling in the United States was unconstitutional, opening the doors for the expansion of the practice to any state that wants it. The District, though not a state, has at least one lawmaker who thinks it’s an idea worth exploring, in part because of the evolving consensus about gambling.

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“I think the world today is a vastly different world than it was even 10 years ago for gambling in the District of Columbia. … Anytime there was any talk of casino gambling in the District of Columbia, it was very strongly opposed, largely by the religious community,” D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said in a telephone conversation this week. “Fast-forward 15, 20 years, the world is different. Maryland has a casino less than a mile away from the District of Columbia … the MGM Grand — and Maryland is rife with gambling everywhere. So the idea of religious institutions being opposed, I think, is long gone now, certainly in Maryland.”

Evans said he continues to study the idea of sports gambling, taking a look at how states such as New Jersey are adopting the practice, and he hopes to introduce legislation in the Council before it goes on recess in July. Then he would like to hold hearings in the fall with all the relevant stakeholders — including sports leagues that may lobby for a cut of sports gambling revenue — to hash out how exactly the city could go about such an endeavor. Among the topics that need to be discussed: whether sports gambling could take place in physical locations such as the city’s stadiums and arenas, and whether there would be an online component, a practice that has been adopted in Nevada, where sports gambling is legal. That aspect could be complicated, Evans said, by the fact that gambling is not allowed on federal land such as the Mall.

If the support is there, Evans said, he’d ideally like to have sports gambling in place “by the end of the year.”

D.C. lawmakers have waged efforts to bring casino gambling to the city on numerous occasions. In 2004, Congress vowed to block an attempt to bring slot-machine gambling to the District, and a 2011-12 plan to bring online casino games to the city was scuttled after questions arose about the secretive process by which it was enacted. Any plan to bring sports gambling to the city also would require approval from Congress, which has wide authority over District laws. Evans doesn’t foresee that to be an issue because gambling is accepted in so many other places.

“Virtually every state in the country has gambling, and many of them have casino gambling, and for Congress to say you can’t have gambling in the District of Columbia when virtually every jurisdiction has gambling now would be completely hypocritical, so I don’t think that’s a stumbling block, either,” he said. “So I think we can do what we think is best for the city.”

The office of U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the congressional subcommittee on District affairs, did not respond to a request for comment.

Long odds — for now — on legal sports betting in the DMV

Sports betting has been against the law in the District since very early in the 20th century, when the city’s congressional overlords enacted Washington’s criminal code and made it illegal “to bet, gamble, or make books or pools on the result of any trotting race or running race of horses, or boat race, or race of any kind, or on any election or any contest of any kind, or game of base ball.” The current D.C. law retains much of the same language but expands the list of sports to include just about everything: “football, baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, or polo game, or a tennis, golf, or wrestling match, or a tennis or golf tournament, or a prize fight or boxing match, or a trotting or running race of horses, or a running race of dogs, or any other athletic or sporting event or contest.” (Proponents of the failed “sports pool lottery” attempt contended it would have been a game of chance rather than a game of skill, and thus legal.)

The law means you can’t even place a legal online bet on a horse race in the District, a practice that is allowed in 38 states, including neighboring Virginia and Maryland. Asked about that particular angle, Evans said that “everything is on the table.”

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