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Will the NFL give in on marijuana or gambling first?

Both topics have been in the news regularly.

The NFL handles a variety of legal issues rather poorly, and two that I have found particularly problematic by the NFL are marijuana and sports gambling. Both have been in the news quite a bit in recent years, and both seem to be gaining public support.

Last week, an NFL writer posed an interesting question. He asked which would be legalized first, marijuana or sports betting. I’m not surprised by the results of his poll, with sports betting getting 55 percent of the vote.

The poll question came up in part because of the United States’ Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case involving a New Jersey sports gambling law. Sports gambling is generally illegal under a law called PASPA. It grandfathered in some states, including Nevada, but has otherwise kept sports gambling illegal in most states. The court will potentially decide whether or not PASPA violates the Tenth Amendment, which protects state rights.

The Court will hear the case either this fall or early next spring. The four major sports and the NCAA are pushing for the Court to uphold the law, but the fact that the Court is even willing to hear the case is kind of a big deal.

Given the current political environment, I’m inclined to think sports betting will be legalized before marijuana. Eight states have legalized recreational marijuana in some form or fashion, and another 21 states have legalized medical marijuana in some fashion. The momentum is there, but I am curious to see how the federal government approaches it. Under President Obama, they still left marijuana categorized as a Level I drug, but they cut back funding on the DEA going after state’s choosing to loosen the rules. The new attorney general wanted to go after it more, but the budget was not provided to do that, so we’ll see what comes of it. While there is a state’s rights argument to be made, I doubt we see any improvement in how the federal government is willing to approach it anytime soon.

Leaders of the push to legalize sports betting want to get it legalized so as to bring it out of the darkness. A vast majority of money bet on sports happens on the black market, and legalizing it could bring a lot of that under regulation and taxation.

Two years ago, San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York offered some comments on both topics. He seems comfortable with the potential loosening of NFL rules on both issues of sports gambling and marijuana. I could see more of the younger executives being more comfortable with it compared to the old guard. Roger Goodell continues to talk about the issues (particularly marijuana) with language that seems to come from the days of Reefer Madness.

Marijuana in particular would be useful to the NFL in terms of trying to prevent players from getting hooked on pain medication. Former offensive tackle Eugene Monroe has been advocating for that for some time, but the NFL has not shown much interest in discussing that. The NFLPA might push for it in collective bargaining, but the owners would want some concessions in return. Even if it would help player health, NFL owners are not going to give in without financial concessions. They talk about player health, but an opportunity to really improve it is being ignored by the owners. Par for the course I suppose.

Given the NFL’s move to Las Vegas, I imagine the league will be willing to make some adjustments there first. It will depend on how the national conversation goes, but there is plenty of money to be made from casinos and sports books. The NFL already does sponsorship deals with casinos, but it might take a big turn if things loosen up.