Behind the Bets

Delaware governor Jack Markell at a press conference discussing the sports gambling bill. Matt Rissmiller / ESPN

"Don't freak out."

That's the email I got from Delaware Governor Jack Markell's spokesman, Joe Rogalsky, on Tuesday, May 5th. It was 8:30 p.m., I had just come downstairs from putting my boys to bed, and checked my Blackberry.

For two months I'd been working with E:60 producers on a piece airing tonight about Delaware's likely entry into the sports betting world. And about 30 minutes before I got Rogalsky's email, the Delaware State Legislature had voted against the newly-elected Markell's sports gambling proposal. It was his first major piece of legislation and a centerpiece of his plan to close a $750M -- and growing -- budget gap.

Delaware, along with Nevada, Montana and Oregon, is one of four states that has long had sports betting laws in its books, exempting it from the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a federal law which banned states from getting into the bookmaking business. But Delaware hasn't toyed with it since a failed run during the 1976 NFL season. And now it looked unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Naturally I freaked out.

Although, probably not as much as Markell and his staff. The vote in the state house fell two votes shy of passing. And, in Delaware, a bill that's been defeated can be re-introduced within three days for another vote. So for the next two days the governor's administration went into arm-twisting mode. The E:60 folks and I wanted to be there to see it -- whether it passed, or went down in flames.

I showed up in the state capitol of Dover on Thursday afternoon with E:60 producer Matt Rissmiller and our camera crew. Our first interview was with the Delaware House Minority Leader, Richard Cathcart, who led the effort to kill Markell's bill, which included several revenue-enhancing ideas beyond sports betting that he didn't agree with. After the interview I asked him, "When do you think you'll re-vote?"

"We're going to do it today, in this afternoon's session."

There was a lot of anticipation in Dover's Legislative Hall that day. Markell's proposal has received national attention, largely because sports betting has long been taboo for American politicians. States raising money through lotteries is acceptable. And Native-American casinos and riverboats full of black jack tables have all mainstreamed. But gambling on games carries a stigma that goes back to the 1950s, when the U.S. Senate held hearings on organized crime and it became clear sports betting was a big part of its business.

Since then, the NFL, the NCAA, the NHL and the NBA have all been stung by betting scandals or suffered players with gambling problems. Wiping away the stain is nearly impossible. "I can be forgiven for going to a gentleman's club and spending $80,000 making it rain," Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs told me while I reported this story. "But betting on games? That's unforgivable. That's just selfish."

Markell's no gambler, but he is pragmatic. And he thinks tapping into the billions of dollars illegally bet on sports every year is the quickest way to trim Delaware's deficit. And he doesn't buy into arguments that betting, so prevalent today, is doing irreparable harm to sports. Even Suggs, who is against the idea of more legalized betting, admits Markell may be right.

"The NFL doesn't want it, they don't allow it, but if it gets more people to watch the game, boost the ratings," says Suggs, "they won't crack down as much as they say."

Markell's not the only one who wants a piece of this action. After he announced his plans last March, New Jersey State Senator Ray Lesniak sued the federal government to have the federal betting ban overturned.

"New Jersey is getting the raw end of this deal," says Lesniak.

When the ban was passed in 1992 the door was left open for a challenge just like the one Lesniak is posing. Senator Chuck Grassley (R, Iowa) strongly opposed the law, writing, "Not since prohibition have Americans so readily engaged in an illegal activity as they do with sports betting…it would seem inescapably logical for cash-strapped state governments to legalize sports betting and let the revenue from it flow."

Grassley even cited a letter from the Department of Justice, which opposed the ban saying, "The department is concerned that that bill raises federalism issues."

I checked with the Senator, who's a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. His position hasn't changed.

"Go ahead and tell legislators we got a way where we could guarantee you a certain amount of money each year," says David Schwartz, the head of gaming research at UNLV. "In this climate, they'd jump at it."

Or at least, that's what Markell thought. Instead, he had to fight to keep his bill alive. Cathcart and his colleagues actually never opposed sports betting. They were against the proposed increased in revenue the state would get from struggling local racetracks, and the way in which Markell tried to push the bill through the legislature.

"We have no problem with sports betting, Delaware will have sports betting one day," Cathcart told me before the re-vote. "But if the governor thinks he can solve our budget issues without including the Republican caucus, he's crazy."

The legislators took the state house floor at 2 p.m. on Thursday, May 7th. They honored students from local colleges, who offered everyone geraniums. They celebrated the 25th wedding anniversary of a fellow member and the birthday of someone in the legislator's support staff. They took roll call, a couple of votes, and then they took a recess. It was a real life civics lesson.

The sports betting bill -- House Substitute No. 1 for House Bill No. 100 -- wasn't on the official agenda, but by the time the representatives returned from their break, a buzz swirled around the halls: The vote was on. Then, before everyone in the house took their seats, Cathcart began racing around the floor, imploring his fellow Republicans to, "get to the caucus room, now."

They disappeared. And then the rumors started. "The governor didn't have the support and was twisting arms…" "Republicans lost two votes and were trying to rally…" "A deal is close…" "No way a deal is happening…"

At four o'clock Rogalsky expected to tell the press a deal was near.

At five o'clock a court reporter said the negotiations couldn't go much past six because nothing like this has ever happened so early in a legislative session.

At six o'clock one of Markell's yay votes had to leave for a flight out of town.

At seven o'clock Cathcart walked into Markell's office.

At eight o'clock he walked out. That's when everyone in the building ordered dinner. The front steps of Legislative Hall looked like a dorm on Sunday night, with a whole lot of people waiting on deliveries from Dominos.

And on it went. Pizza boxes piled up. Reporters milled around the governor's office, Cathcart walked in, walked out, walked in and walked out.

At 11:30, with no sign of a deal imminent, I took a seat in the room where the afternoon session began, and fell asleep. This is how government works.

Then a bell rang throughout the halls. The session was about to begin. Again. Nearly nine hours after it broke up. This time, by a vote of 30-4, the sports betting bill passed.

"This is an important first step for Delaware in terms of getting the sports lottery authorized," Markell told me in his office at about one o'clock that morning. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

At least there's no reason to freak out.

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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.