Paul Tonko
“I am working to give sports back to the American people,” Rep. Paul Tonko said. Patrick Semansky/AP

Will Scandals Lead Congress to Finally Address Sports Betting?

Rep. Paul Tonko hopes the latest sports betting controversies will help his new bill gain some traction for federal regulations.

A lone congressional wolf hopes to drag Congress into legislating the sports betting industry. And he thinks recent publicized scandals may help his cause.

New York Rep. Paul Tonko announced the SAFE Bet Act on March 19 to coincide with the fervor of March Madness, an annual hot spot for online gambling. The next day, international baseball sensation Shohei Ohtani became embroiled in a strange and twisting gambling investigation. Soon after, NBA player Jontay Porter exited his game early with a supposed illness and is now being investigated for betting irregularities centered on his performance.

The publicized controversies shone a spotlight on the dark side of sports betting. Congress has largely ignored the industry’s existence since 2018, sitting on its legislative hands after the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Murphy v. NCAA. The ruling left sports betting to the states, and Capitol Hill was happy to leave it there. Tonko hopes to grab parts of it back.

“I am working to give sports back to the American people,” Tonko told NOTUS in a statement.

The legislation would require states to obtain a Department of Justice-approved application to operate a sports betting program and maintain compliance with federal advertising, affordability and AI restrictions. The restrictions would limit when betting ads are broadcasted, including a ban on in-game gambling commercials, and limit the number of deposits bettors can make in a 24-hour period. He plans to file the legislation later this year.

The act would mean sweeping changes to the betting industry. Even a stripped-down version would meet fierce internal and external opposition — and it’s unclear whether Tonko can win support.

His past foray into the betting legislation, released in February 2023, only found one co-sponsor: Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes. However, Tonko hopes the current sports climate will at least start a conversation among his colleagues.

So far, 38 states and D.C. have legalized sports betting. More states are expected to join, with recurring efforts to legalize the practice in Georgia, Missouri and Minnesota.

States that chose to partake generated mountains of revenue, but the reaped rewards have been offset by the growing public health concerns surrounding online gambling, evidenced by dramatic increases in calls to gambling helplines after legalization in each state but one, Oregon.

Murphy v. NCAA placed the onus of regulating the industry on the states. Some have attempted to mitigate the adverse consequences of online betting. Ohio disallowed prop bets on college athletes after members of the Dayton Flyers basketball team received hateful messages after the legalization took place. Other states, including Maryland and Vermont, have also banned prop bets on college sports.

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Last week, former Massachusetts governor and NCAA President Charlie Baker announced the association would reach out to state officials where college prop bets are allowed to push for their removal from betting markets.

“Sports betting issues are on the rise across the country with prop bets continuing to threaten the integrity of competition and leading to student-athletes and professional athletes getting harassed,” Baker said in a release.

Later in the week, Massachusetts launched a public-private coalition to teach young people the risks of sports betting. Partnering with the state’s major sports franchises, the NCAA, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and others, the Youth Sports Betting Safety Coalition will attempt to counter the deluge of gambling advertisements that inundate young sports lovers.

But sports leagues, states and businesses have embraced the betting industry for years. A day before the allegations against Porter came out, the NBA announced fans would be able to place bets inside its NBA League Pass app.

And emblazoned across the famed Green Monster at historic Fenway Park? A gigantic advertisement for BetMGM, the official sports betting partner of the Boston Red Sox — the newest member of the state’s Youth Sports Betting Safety Coalition.

Ben T.N. Mause is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.