'The Sopranos' and legalizing gambling

June, 21, 2013

"The Sopranos." Season 1, Episode 5. Aired Feb. 7, 1999. Title: "College." (What? I write a gambling column for ESPN, spent six years living in the same Jersey town as Dr. Melfi and used to go to Holsten's for ice cream with my kids. You think I wasn't going to lead with James Gandolfini's death?) The episode is mostly remembered for Tony shuttling Meadow around to visit different New England colleges. And for the way he spotted an old mobster-turned-informant and then choked him to death with a wire after dropping Meadow off at Colby. It was a tour de force moment for the series, winning David Chase and James Manos Jr. an Emmy for writing.

But I remember it for a much smaller, quieter, different scene. I was reporting a story for ESPN The Mag about the guys who set the lines for the NCAA tournament, which would lead to me moving to Vegas for several months to write my book, "The Odds." Gambling was on my brain; I was acutely aware of every mention, hoping it would be something that could gobble up words or start a thread. In this scene, Meadow and Tony are driving down some tree-lined New England highway (truth is, the scene was shot in Jersey). She turns down the radio and asks him if he is in the Mafia. Tony looks pissed.

"I'm in the waste management business. Everyone thinks you are mobbed up. It's a stereotype, and it's offensive. And you are the last person I would want to perpetuate it."

"Fine," Meadow answers.

"There is no Mafia," he says.

Meadow stares at him. He stares at her. Then, before she says anything, again he says, "Look, Mead, you are grown woman, almost. Some of my money comes from illegal gambling and whatnot."

Meadow is unfazed. She was pleased, in fact, that her dad was opening up. But here's what got me: While he wasn't specific about sports betting, the intention was clear, as much a Mafioso stereotype as waste management. For decades, this is how it's been. Once upon a time, way back when having a radio was considered a luxury, no one knew how deeply sports betting was controlled by the Mafia. But in 1950, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver held hearings to investigate organized crime. Frank Costello, head of a New York family, testified. Nearly 100 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in. And what they learned was that sports betting made up a large part of his business. They learned that local cops from Chicago to New Orleans admitted to being on the take and looking the other way when gangsters collected. That is when the scales tipped, turning sports betting from a neighborhood hobby into a nationwide epidemic of ill-gotten gains.

The irony, of course, was that mobsters continued to make millions off of sports betting and then clean up in the waste management business. For Meadow, this was an acceptable transgression. "At least you don't keep denying it like mom. Kids in school think it's actually kind of neat."

In 1999, the offshores were just starting to sprout and begin slowly nipping away at the sports betting market. Even Tony wasn't immune. In another Sopranos scene, which the boys at Covers dug up, he's watching a fight with a rapper in the hospital, where both of them are recovering from being shot. The rapper says he has $50K on the match and that he had bet with Pinny. Tony is disappointed that his new buddy bet online.

Don't worry, though, there has always been plenty to go around. Remember, only $3 billion is legally wagered on sports in Nevada. The remaining estimated hundreds of billions are funneled through offshore books and illegal bookies.

At least for now.

Because on Wednesday, the next phase of New Jersey's lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the major sports leagues to have sports betting legalized begins. The state, which wants the federal sports betting ban known as the Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) overturned, lost round one back in March, when a U.S. District Court judge in Trenton ruled against its claims. Round two in front of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philly will feature the legal version of Soprano versus Lupertazzi, with former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson arguing for N.J. against another ex-Solicitor General, Paul Clement, representing the major sports leagues that want to keep the law in place.

During the oral arguments Olson is going to say that PASPA is unconstitutional. That it violates that 10th Amendment by commandeering New Jersey's legislative authority (i.e., not letting it make its own decisions.). And he's going to argue that the leagues' claim that legalized sports betting will do irreparable harm are preposterous, since the leagues continue to make the case that it does not exist until it is illegal, ignoring the fact it's happening in numbers that make fantasy sports look like a mom-and-pop business.

At the heart of the case is the idea that leaving it in the shadows where the bad guys can control it does more harm than good, that this is an acceptable way to raise revenue for states that are strapped when every other form of gambling is legal and encouraged.

Even Meadow understood that.


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