Looking back at Congress' Watergate-era sports gambling inquiry

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Throwing out the possibility of Congressional hearings on the issue of sports gambling seems to be a popular thing to do these days.

In November, NBA commissioner Adam Silver called for a "federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports." Three months later, Major League Baseball's new commissioner Rob Manfred said a federal-level solution of the type proposed by Silver "sounds like a good idea." In January, Senator John McCain of Arizona offered up the possibility of hearings too, telling ESPN's Andy Katz and ABC's Rick Klein: "We need to have a talk with the American people, and we need to probably have hearings in Congress on the whole issue so we can build consensus." Senator McCain doubled-down in April, reiterating his stance via a videotaped address at a gaming conference in Las Vegas.

Sen. McCain speaks from experience, as 15 years ago he led a Senate hearing narrowly focused on college sports wagering. The March 2000 inquiry did not result in any legislation.

The potential hearing being bandied about now promises to be quite different. Its breadth would be wide, involving amending or outright repealing the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (the federal statute at issue in the yet-to-be-decided New Jersey sports betting lawsuit). It would include a number of technology-related topics, including line monitoring, mobile betting and age verification protections. During testimony, the hearing may also pit a wagering-friendly sports league commissioner against another top executive who is more tethered to a historical anti-gambling position.

But what would a full-blown Congressional inquiry into sports gambling look like? Luckily, Congressional hearings that took place over the course of several weeks in 1976 provide an answer.

The U.S. House of Representatives convened a "Select Committee on Professional Sports" that year and over the course of 750-plus pages in a January 1977 final report, one of the topics the committee probed was sports gambling. The committee's inquiry was buttressed by another congressional inquiry into gambling that held hearings the previous year.

The recipe that was used in the Watergate-era sports gambling hearing was a familiar one: mix together a dash of dry academic research, a teaspoon of serious-sounding legislators and several heaping tablespoons of big-name sports figures testifying on Capitol Hill. The resulting brew sheds light on the speed bumps that will likely emerge on the road toward an "inevitable" expansion of legalized sports wagering in 2015 and beyond.

The 1976 House Committee's inquiry was shaped by a number of witnesses who "were asked to present their views on sports gambling, particularly whether or not it should be legalized." Excerpts from the most notable testimony, all recently obtained by ESPN Chalk from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., included both supporters and opponents of legalized sports gambling. The witnesses included:

Larry Merchant, author of "The National Football Lottery"

Sports betting should be legalized, but only if it is structured in such a way that it does not endanger sports...People want to gamble and the laws prohibiting them from doing so cannot be enforced.

Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner

Legal sports betting would seriously erode public confidence in the games. It would create a generation of cynical fans, obsessed with point spreads and pari-mutuel tickets and constantly suspicious of the moves of players and coaches.

Kelso Sturgeon, Gambling Research, Inc. president

Sports betting should be legalized, but whether it is legalized or not, it will continue to exist...The sports bettor already has formed his habits: Thus, to be effective, legislation changes must be made to accommodate these habits. If it does not, he will continue to bet illegally.

Bowie Kuhn, MLB commissioner

No government operation can effectively compete with the illegal bookmaker. Organized crime would be able to exploit the market of newly initiated gamblers that the legalized gambling would make available to it.

Paul Screvane, New York City Off-Track Betting Corporation president

The time is appropriate for controlled experimentation with legalized sports betting, hopefully with the cooperation and participation of those directly involved with the administration of sports.

Art Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers president

The integrity, success and future of football would be jeopardized if gambling were legalized. The number of bettors -- both social and compulsive -- would increase dramatically. More fans would have a financial stake in the outcome of the game and hence little or no interest in its competitive value.

Walter Kennedy, former NBA commissioner

The legalization of sports betting would make every adult citizen a potential gambler rather than just a fan. A new generation of fans would be more concerned with the margin of defeat rather than with who wins or loses the game. Every missed basket, poor play, choice of strategy or substitution would become an economic factor; cynicism would replace family fun ...The potential abuses are endless and would lead to the destruction of professional sports in this country because of the irreplaceable loss of confidence in the integrity of competition.

A possible sports Armageddon aside, it is safe to assume that Walter Kennedy would probably be slow to embrace in-game betting. But Adam Silver is no Walter Kennedy. And having at least one current big-league commissioner embrace legalized sports gambling would give a 2016 Congressional hearing a different dynamic than the one 40 years earlier, which had limited impact.

Indeed, in a crystal ball moment, the House Committee's final report concluded with a recommendation particularly relevant today: "Legalized sports wagering should be subject to extensive debate to allow the voting public to form an educated opinion." Sen. McCain agrees, but his Congressional colleagues have yet to second him. If New Jersey prevails in its pending lawsuit, look for the lobbying-induced drumbeats of Senate hearings to increase in intensity.