New Jersey leaders ridicule NCAA's decision to snub state over sports-betting law

Posted: October 18, 2012

Gov. Christie and New Jersey lawmakers on Tuesday ridiculed the NCAA's decision to relocate five championship competitions based on the state's push to allow sports betting. The organization forbids sports betting in states that host its championship games and argues that wagering, whether legal or illegal, is harmful to college athletes.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak called the move "ludicrous and hypocritical."

"The NCAA wants to penalize New Jersey for responsibly legalizing what occurs illegally every day in every state and often with the participation of organized crime," he said.

No one could have legally bet on the championship games in New Jersey. The constitutional amendment that allows sports gambling expressly forbids betting on any college team based in New Jersey or any college game played in the state.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) said New Jersey, not the NCAA, was acting responsibly when it came to sports betting.

"The NCAA continually ignores the billions of dollars wagered illegally every year," he said in a statement issued Tuesday. "In New Jersey we're moving that betting from the back rooms, where organized crime controls the books, to out in the open, where it can be carefully regulated and monitored.

"The NCAA and the professional leagues can yell all they want about 'the integrity of sports,' but until they embrace policies to wipe out the illegal books, those are just words."

Federal law prohibits sports betting in all but four states, but that has not stopped New Jersey voters or lawmakers from pushing forward with a plan to allow it as early as January.

In 2011, voters approved a constitutional amendment by a 2-1 ratio to allow sports betting at Atlantic City casinos and the state's four horse racing tracks. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation to allow it, and Christie signed the measure into law in January.

In the Inquirer New Jersey poll of 604 likely voters this month, 50 percent supported making sports betting legal in New Jersey while 31 percent opposed the idea. In South Jersey, 48 percent supported sports wagering, with 31 percent opposed. The NCAA and the four major pro-sports leagues (the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and Major League Baseball) sued New Jersey in federal court in August, but the suit could take from two to three years to run its course. Meanwhile, the state continues with its plans. On Monday, the state Division of Gaming Enforcement published sports betting rules in the New Jersey Register.

That same evening, the NCAA announced that it would pull the games.

"Maintaining the integrity of sports and protecting student-athlete well-being are at the bedrock of the NCAA's mission, and are reflected in our policies prohibiting the hosting of our championships in states that provide for single-game sports wagering," Mark Lewis, NCAA executive vice president of championships and alliances, said in a statement Monday evening. "Consistent with our policies and beliefs, the law in New Jersey requires that we no longer host championships in the state."

The events affected are: Division I men's and women's swimming and diving championships, diving regionals (Piscataway, March 14 to 17); Division I women's basketball championship, Trenton regional (Trenton, March 30 to April 2); Division III men's volleyball championship (Hoboken, April 26 to 28); and the Division II and Division III women's lacrosse championships (Montclair, May 18 and 19). Since 1992, sports wagering has been banned in all states except Nevada, Oregon, Montana, and Delaware.

New Jersey is taking a risk by openly thwarting federal law, said I. Nelson Rose, an international gaming lawyer. Beyond the civil suit, the state could be charged by the U.S. Department of Justice.

None of the state's casinos has been willing to run afoul of federal law to apply for a license for sports betting, making it unlikely that anyone will be accepting bets in 2013.

"I find it amazing that Gov. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, would, in effect, say, 'Come and get me, coppers,' " Rose said.

Sports betting is thought to be a $380 billion industry, with most revenue going to illegal enterprises, according to a recent national gambling study. Lesniak and other sports betting backers hope it could bring as much as $225 million annually into Atlantic City casinos and racetracks.

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

Inquirer staff writer Suzette Parmley contributed to this article.

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