The importance of a single game in sports can range from relatively meaningless to being of the utmost relevance. Typically, it’s the weight of what happened before the single game that informs its significance. In North American professional sports, a seventh game in a series is only important because the previous six ended up even. Not every game is a seventh, though. There are game ones and twos, and an entire schedule of single games that lead up to that moment, all with seemingly varying degrees of meaning attached to them.
However, there is a method by which sports fans might enhance their experience for every single game, no matter the consequences involved for those participating in the sport or supporting the teams. We can wager on the outcomes.
Unfortunately, in Canada, we cannot wager on single games without negotiating the murky waters surrounding off-shore betting websites or the black sulfuric tar that encompasses a local book maker with ties to organized crime. The options for legal sports gambling in Canadian provinces (Pari sportif in Quebec, Pro-Line in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and Sports Action in British Columbia) are restricted by law from offering anything but parlays involving multiple outcomes from at least two separate events.
In the autumn of 2011, Member of Parliament Joe Comartin of the New Democratic Party sought to change these outdated shackles by introducing a Private Members Bill calling for an amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code that would allow individual provinces to decide on whether or not sports betting is to be allowed for single events.
Over the last 103 years, only 245 Private Members Bill have been passed in Canada. Yet, less than five months after it was introduced, Bill C-290 passed third reading unanimously without a standing vote in the House. As is customary, the bill then went to the Senate for its approval. Only eight times in the last 70 years has a bill passed by the House been overturned in the Senate, and never has a unanimously passed bill been rejected by the Upper Chamber. So, it was largely expected that Bill C-290 would be introduced as law by the summer of 2012.
A funny thing happened on the way to ratification. Due to the sped up process that the Private Members Bill receives in the House of Commons, little time was given for debate at committee. Member of Parliament Michael Chong of the Conservative Party explains:
When this Bill was studied by a House of Commons committee, there was only one witness who spoke to the Bill, and that witness was also a proponent of the Bill. At no point did Bill C-290 receive adequate debate or examination in the House of Common
With more time for consideration in the Senate, representatives from professional sports leagues got involved. In addition to statements from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Football League, Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston urged the Senate in person not to pass the bill, claiming that the integrity of professional sports was at stake.
When gambling is permitted on team sports, winning the bet may become more important than winning the game; the point spread or the number of runs scored may overshadow the game’s outcome and the intricacies of play. If large numbers of our fans come to regard baseball only or even partially as a gambling vehicle, the very nature of the sport will be altered and harmed.
The degradation of gambling as morally reprehensible behavior is nothing new. Unfortunately, such an attitude ignores its potential to offer an enhancement to a sporting experience and instead pushes the practice toward a corner of the room that professional sports leagues would sooner avoid, not only because gambling is held in a negative regard, but also because it falls outside the purview of their control. By permitting sports gambling, jurisdictions exploit the data from professional sports leagues for profit in a way that the individual leagues can’t.
However, this complaint isn’t as likely to sway public opinion – or appointed Senators – as leaning on buzz terms like “integrity of the game” and “match-fixing” to associate sports gambling with its basest and most negative stereotypes. Never mind that these characteristics are the very ones that a lack of regulation helps to proliferate. So, in the battle over legalizing wagering on a single game, the sports leagues played a game of their own, and it proved effective.
600 days after MPP Joe Comartin introduced Bill C-290, it continues to await a vote from Senators. For the past several months, Members of the Upper Chamber seemed content to wait the bill out until a fifteenth session without its mention would pass, thereby officially ending its existence. As New Brunswick Liberal Senator Joe Day told CBC News, “It might just die a natural death.”
Unfortunately for the bill’s detractors, there is a game in Ottawa that trumps perceived public perception, and it’s the one that relates to politicking. Scandals involving the spending reports of four senators accused of claiming primary residency outside of Ottawa – in order to claim living expenses for work in Ottawa – put the Senate in the bad books of the Conservative MPs. In order to earn favor back, an unnamed source told Jessica Murphy of Sun News that Government Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton had asked that private member’s bills still on the Senate agenda be fast-tracked in a bid to calm her disgruntled colleagues.
A representative I spoke with from LeBreton’s office wouldn’t confirm or deny the report, instead offering a “no comment” equivalent:
All I can say on this is that the bill is currently before the senate and awaits third reading.
Perhaps it’s naive to suggest, but the entire ordeal surrounding Bill C-290 offers a rather soul-crushing bit of insight into how the laws that govern us are created: Not by merit, but by the political and public favor it earns lawmakers. Even if the bill is finally brought to a vote, there’s no guarantee it will pass despite the best efforts of lobbyist groups. Just as recent political scandals have sent Senators scurrying to make good with comrades in the House of Commons, it’s also made them determined to prove their worth in the face of questions to their value.
The Senate’s origins, as described by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, came from a motivation to provide a place of “sober second thought” so that legislation would receive careful consideration before finally becoming law. Realistically, it was created to ensure further representation for the country’s economic and social elite, thus the now laughable qualifications of property and wealth. Nonetheless, Canadians have been hearing that term – “sober second thought” – a lot in recent weeks, and given the rapidity with which Bill C-290 passed through the House of Commons, the legislation represents a perfect opportunity for the Senate to put these words into action on a public stage.
This brings us back to what’s sadly been the least appreciated aspect of Bill C-290: Its merits.
As I mentioned earlier, I think its important to move past stereotypes and consider sports wagering for what it is, an enhancement of the vicarious experience that sports provide. This is what sports books, whether legal or not, are essentially selling to spectators. Sports fans place a bet on the outcome, and thereby make the game being played in front of them more meaningful on a personal level. Considering gambling to be a vice not only gives professional sports leagues a convenient out in the pursuit of absolute control of their product, but it also pushes wagering operations toward a criminal element that is only too happy to accept it.
The only true moral decision to be made when it comes to gambling is the avenue with which we choose to pursue it. For too long, the restrictions and limitations placed on betting have been used to justify interaction with organized criminals or companies taking advantage of jurisdictions with little to no gambling regulations. Increased legalization and regulation creates a more legitimate avenue for sports fans to pursue their hobby.
If the majority of the general public can understand purchasing music to be a preferable practice to stealing it through file sharing, how much more easily should we be able to comprehend that betting illegally contributes to far worse criminal activities? We choose to pay for music rather than download it illegally because it’s relatively easy and the cost isn’t prohibitive to doing what we feel is right. Now, imagine your choice if every time you illegally downloaded a song, you contributed to organized crime.
I’ve brought up this analogy in the past, and I don’t believe it’s lost relevance. Wider legalization of sport wagering essentially creates an iTunes for gambling. Certainly, it won’t eradicate the criminal element. There remain far too many misanthropes willing to blind themselves to the unsavory aspects of where their money is going in pursuit of the best odds possible. However, when increased enforcement of criminally controlled sports gambling – an effort that additional revenue from more accessible wagering could help fund – is matched with a legitimate source to take bets, it doesn’t just eliminate a path for illegal activity, only for another to pop up again later. It diverts those engaged in sports gambling toward wagers that fund charities, amateur athletes, regional priorities, social programs and community festivals rather than merely sponsoring drugs, prostitution and gun violence.
It’s estimated that $10 billion annually is being wagered through illegal sports betting in Canada, with $4 billion more wagered online through illegal offshore betting websites. Beyond winning, the best possible outcome for illegal bets sees gambling losses go toward regulation-ducking companies rather than crime syndicates.
Unfortunately, that’s not the conversation we’re having right now. Due to the manipulation of public perception and the politicking of an irrelevant government body, the benefits of legalized and regulated single game sports wagering are being overshadowed by the tired process of legislation that attempts to see it for the advantages it offers.
It’s a cruel coincidence that the prospects of single-game sports wagering in Canada are dependent on a different sort of game for which there is no safe bet at all. No matter what happens with the bill, something that clearly benefits our country is being made a victim of dated perspectives and illogical positions. It’s frustrating to see the rickety and rusty political machine in action, inserting itself as a hindrance to progress. This is its effect on a bill that in the long run is relatively unimportant – it has to do with sports and with gambling – serving to make us wonder what happens with potential legislation that stands to have an even greater impact.
Editorial note: Excerpts from this column relating to Bill C-290′s progress originally appeared in a February 28th column, The Problem With Perception: Gambling, The Mafia, Biker Gangs, Politicians And The Ulterior Motives of Pro Sports.