What was the first form of wagering you ever personally participated in? I’m guessing if you are an American male, say anywhere from 30 to 60 years of age, it was sports betting.

At least this was the case for me and my circle of friends who grew up during the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s. It was the most natural thing in the world to take our love of sports and attach money to it, usually on a dare. You know, the old schoolyard taunt of “what do you know about X sport or team?” followed eventually by rejoinder “Oh yeah, I’ll bet you X amount of money I’m right (or you are wrong).” I remember wagering and winning my first $5, a lot of money for a kid in the late 1970s, on just such a sports bet by picking the Yankees to beat the Dodgers in 1978 World Series.

Pretty innocent stuff, for sure, and in my case the yen for sports wagering did not progress much beyond participating in the Super Bowl and Final Four pools at school. But that’s not to say I didn’t experience what happens to people of my gender, relative age and social set that couldn’t control the need to bet on sports. An acquaintance at college went into hiding and a quick retreat home because he owed a large amount of money to the wrong people for a series of losing sports wagers. Fortunately, his parents bailed him out—and forced him to transfer to a school closer to home and their authority. I’m guessing he was one of the lucky ones.

I’d like to think that given all the legal forms of wagering currently existing in the U.S., the situation I witnessed when I was younger no longer exists. But as everyone knows, this is not the case with sports wagering in the U.S., which is only legal in Nevada and perhaps soon New Jersey; and as a result it is now estimated that $400 billion is illegally bet on sports each year. You can be sure that a chunk of this illicit wagering comes from people way too young to know better, who end up dealing with bookies and their ilk who float them money and let them get in deeper and deeper.     

This is why I applaud National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver and his recent New York Times Op/Ed piece in which he called for legalized professional sports wagering. Silver has come to the common sense conclusion that the best way to keep people from going to bookies, unregulated offshore websites or the host of other underground business that feed the desire to wager on sports is by offering a safe and legal way to fulfill that need. He asked Congress to adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards. His stance garnered support from Mark Cuban and other NBA team owners, as well as various personalities from across the world of sports.

Unfortunately, the commissioners of other professional sports organizations, most notably the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, refuse to even broach the issue of sports wagering, believing the current ban on the activity is best. The NFL has even gone so far as to argue against New Jersey sports wagering liberalization in court. Football, the NFL and the NCAA are undoubtedly the kings of the sports scene in the U.S., and without their support, it’s hard to envision sports wagering becoming legal.

 Which likely means on some college campus somewhere yet another young person will make a foolish sports bet that is much more dangerous than they could possibly imagine.