In June 2018, New Jersey governor Bill Murphy signed legislation that legalized sports betting in New Jersey racetracks and casinos. This was made possible after a decade of legal wrangling by the Supreme Court. The court finally handed New Jersey a victory by striking down federal limitations of sports betting to four states. Murphy released a statement proclaiming,

Today, we’re finally making the dream of legalized sports betting a reality for New Jersey…. This is the right move for New Jersey and it will strengthen our economy.”


The legalization was praised by many economists who predicted strong investments and cash flow by betters. But it was also denounced by professional sports leagues like the NBA who decried the lack of fairness and integrity in the legislation.

The controversy surrounding sports betting traces its roots back to the early 90s, originating in the state of New Jersey itself.

Bradley’s Ban

It was U.S senator Bill Bradley who first proposed a ban in 1991. The former basketball star of the New York Knicks, proclaimed that the practice was an abusive method. According to him, bookies would be determining the outcome of the games apart from sending a terrible message to the youth.

This ban was lobbied by the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL who shared the same opinion as senator Bradley did.

However, this proposal was met with opposition by one of New Jersey’s House of Representatives member Torricelli who pushed for Atlantic City being exempted from the ban.

Congress eventually went ahead and imposed the ban, which the then US President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1992.

However, the choice of approving sports betting was given to the voters on Election Day in 1993. The citizens of N.J were basically given a mandate until January 1st1994, to approve the practice and vote on changing the state constitution. But this would prove to become more politicized in the years to come.

Political Flashpoint in The Assembly

The battle for legalization of sports betting came to a collision when the republican controlled legislature worked on a measure to approve sports betting. They justified their support by stating that the activity would bring new revenue to the state economy.

In an effort to defeat the measure, Bradley accumulated a coalition consisting of law enforcement unions, sports leagues, and church groups.

Among the measure’s most fervent supporters was the current U.S president Donald Trump who rallied the casino base in pushing for the sports betting legalization. He warned that the casino industry would shut down entirely if the measure did not pass.

Eventually, the bill passed the state senate narrowly in 1992. But it got obstructed in the state assembly when Assemblyman Rodney Frelinghuysen who chaired the Assembly’s appropriations Committee derided the measure as bad policy.

This killed the bill and assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian rejected calls for putting the measure up for a full vote. The summer of 1993 saw the measure’s sponsors try to amend the bill in the hopes that the newer version would find more support in Congress. This new bill died in the same manner.

Repercussions for New Jersey

Much of what the proponents feared following the bill’s passage came to pass when casinos began opening across New Jersey’s neighboring states offering stiff competition to Jersey.

They eventually overwhelmed the Jersey casinos causing at least four of them to close down and taking over 8,000 jobs in the process.

This led to then Governor Chris Christie installing an emergency manager in the city.

The Battle Resumes

The sports betting controversy reared its ugly head once again, this time in 2011, when the people of New Jersey voted in its favor. While Christie sought to end the matter by signing sports wagering into law, the sports league challenged its legality, suing the state and winning their case twice in the federal courts.

This once again brought the issue to a deadlock. Raymond Lesniak, claimed that a federal ban did not prevent a state like New Jersey from allowing sports betting to proceed in casinos, granted that the state did not sanction it.

Under this belief the state legislature gave the measure another go which was signed into law by Chris Christie. Resuming the cycle, the leagues sued again. The courts were more than happy to pass the same judgment.

The Supreme Court Gives its Verdict

This time however, Christie sought to take the matter up to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The state petitioned for a writ of certiorari from SCOTUS in 2016. The case became known as the Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association once Phil Murphy replaced Christie as governor and presided over the case. Finally in May 2018 the Supreme Court gave New Jersey a victory by voting in favor of the right of the state to enact sports betting, drawing the long term battle to its conclusion.

Leave a Comment