The Debate Over Former Gov. Christie’s Sports Betting Hall Of Fame Induction

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The selection of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to the Sports Betting Hall of Fame — he’ll be inducted at a Manhattan ceremony on Thursday along with Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin and veteran bookmaker Art Manteris — created a buzz among some Garden State insiders.

One was former state Senator Ray Lesniak, whose pioneering interest in bringing legal sports betting to New Jersey dates back a decade.

When a Betting on Sports America press release came out last week declaring that it was appropriate to hold their event this week at the Meadowlands Exposition Center “in New Jersey, where Christie himself spent so long spearheading the legal challenge to PASPA,” Lesniak’s response was, “Seriously? Christie’s own words and actions belie that statement.”

It’s time to look back at this saga and sort it all out. As you’ll see, Lesniak has a point — but so does Betting on Sports America.

Early years of the NJ sports betting saga

Let’s reverse gears to Nov. 2009, when Christie is elected governor. Like all governors, Christie had a transition team that worked quickly to offer policy recommendations by the time of the inauguration two months later.

The Gaming Committee transition team, which included a pair of executives for Nevada-based casinos, backed the position of those executives: Do not waste money to pursue sports betting until federal laws change.

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While it indeed may seem awfully convenient for Nevada-based gaming firms to advocate that Christie not “waste money” on trying to end their virtual monopoly in the U.S., it’s also true that as a former U.S. Attorney himself, Christie knew as well as anyone that the overturning of a long-established federal law — as Lesniak and others sought to do — was likely a longshot at best.

In mid-2010, Christie’s attorney general formally declined to intervene in Lesniak’s own lawsuit seeking to take down PASPA (alongside the iMEGA effort led by Joseph Brennan Jr.). That fatally wounded Lesniak’s effort, as he was found to have lack of standing since at that point it was not PASPA that prevented sports betting in New Jersey, but the state’s own government.

An interesting aspect of the New Jersey Constitution is that the inclusion or exclusion of statewide referendums does not include a role for the governor — it simply requires a three-fifths majority in the state Senate and Assembly. After Lesniak’s initial effort was rebuffed, both chambers easily surpassed that threshold, and the question of passing a state law allowing the state’s racetracks and Atlantic City casinos to offer sports betting went to the voters in Nov. 2011.

Almost two-thirds of those voters backed the somewhat revolutionary idea of taking aim at PASPA. A bill was quickly passed and sent to the governor’s desk.

Here come the lawyers

After Christie signed that bill into law in Jan. 2012, five sports organizations sued the state, and Christie, in federal court four months later. From there, Christie did “spearhead” the legal challenge — with one final exception.

Soon after the Third Circuit’s first ruling against the state and a failed request to have the Supreme Court hear the case, the state Legislature passed another bill for Christie’s consideration in June 2014.

It is true, as Lesniak notes, that Christie vetoed a subsequent bill that offered a different approach to sports betting legalization: no state oversight, but instead private oversight by the tracks and casinos themselves.

But as Christie at that time, “I cannot sign this bill, which was introduced on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear our appeal, and then was rushed to passage just three days later.” Christie added that the “rule of law is sacrosanct, binding on all Americans.”

It’s also true, as Lesniak notes, that “Governor Christie’s words would come back to haunt us” in years of subsequent court filings and hearings.

(NJ Online Gambling asked Christie about that bill in New Orleans in January and he said it was “too vague.”)

But when a similar but revised bill reached Christie’s desk in October, Christie signed it. In his new book, Beating the Odds: The Epic Battle That Brought Legal Sports Betting Across America, Lesniak said he believes that Republican elected officials in Republican strongholds threatened to override the veto — which politically would have opened the door, as the first veto of his two-term tenure, to more such rebellion.

Regardless of the reason, Christie signed the bill. And then he did something else that was a key play in landing him in this Hall of Fame.

The big gun comes to NJ

Christie hired Ted Olson, perhaps the top legal mind in the country, a hero to the right for his work in the Bush v Gore Presidential election case in 2000 and to the left for his efforts to overturn Proposition 8 in California, which was a ban on gay marriage in that state. The issue also ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Christie told the audience in New Orleans at the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS) earlier this year, as he took a well-earned victory lap, that he stressed to Olson that getting the courts to overturn such a long-established federal law “wasn’t going to be easy.”

“I said, ‘If you’re scared, we won’t do it,'” Christie recalled. “He said, ‘I’m not scared’ — and we promised each other right there that we’d stick it out through the end. It just took us a while to find a group of judges who understood.”

Christie enjoyed reminiscing about an encounter subsequent to the new partnership.

“I remember seeing [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell one time in New York City in the midst of all this, and him giving me a hard time — saying I was crazy to be pursuing this, I was wasting [taxpayer]money,” Christie said. “Then I said to him, ‘NFL, NCAA, and so on — you guys have a lot more money combined than New Jersey does — so how the hell did you let me get Ted Olson?’ His winning percentage at the Supreme Court has to be 75%, and that’s not bad. It was just the arrogance of the leagues [not to retain Olson first].”

Olson and Christie indeed kept fighting, losing that second Third Circuit Appeals panel ruling, and also a 12-judge “en banc” vote by the full bench of the Court’s judges. But then the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and at a Dec. 2017 hearing it was apparent to many in the courtroom that the state’s case was gaining a sympathetic ear for the bulk of the Court.

In May 2018, six of the nine justices found that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 impermissibly “commandeered” most states into enforcing a ban on sports betting, even if the states did not wish to do so.

Seven states have joined Nevada in the legal, regulated sports betting space, and several more seem to be on the way in 2019. That would not have happened without Christie’s willingness to see the battle to the end — and that, far outweighing an initial resistance to take on the fight, is why Christie is the first politician to land in the London-based Sports Betting Community’s Hall of Fame.

Betting on Sports America event side notes

I will be on a panel with Lesniak at the Betting on Sports America event called “New Jersey — Land of Opportunity” on Thursday at noon along with Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural, chief New Jersey gaming regulator David Rebuck, and Kresimir Spajic, Senior VP Interactive for Hard Rock, which opened a casino in Atlantic City last year.

Lesniak, meanwhile, also will be on hand a day earlier on Wednesday, signing copies of his book. If you don’t see him, ask around — plenty of attendees would be able to point him out.

Photo by Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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