02/10/2006 12:00AM

An easy target for a tired law

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NEW YORK - If you believe the stodgy old New York Times, you might actually think that the real page-one news this past Friday was found in such headlines as "U.S. Trade Deficit Hit All-Time High in 2005," or "White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm." The local tabloids leaned in a slightly different direction: "Gretzky and Betzky" was the banner on the New York Daily News, while the ever-succinct New York Post just screamed "Betzky!"

Isn't it great to see betting making front-page news? Well, not really. Once the gossipy giggles over this idiotic "scandal" have passed, it's hard not to be frustrated and depressed over American societal attitudes and public policy about gambling.

The story is that New Jersey prosecutors have charged Rick Tocchet, the former National Hockey League player and current Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach, with financing a football-betting operation whose customers included some current NHL players and Janet Jones, the wife of retired hockey superstar and Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky. There is no indication that anyone, including Gretzky, bet on hockey, and Gretzky has denied ever betting illegally on anything either by himself or through his wife.

Nonetheless, Betzky is big news and hand-wringing commentators are already questioning the integrity of hockey, opining that Gretzky is now too tarnished ever to be named commissioner of the NHL, and predicting that the story will dominate coverage of the winter Olympics, where Gretzky will be accompanying Team Canada as its executive director.

It seems what we have here is - hold on to your hat - a case of people betting on football games, which millions of Americans in all 50 states routinely do even though such betting is technically legal only in Nevada.

Is it really a prudent use of public funds and law-enforcement resources to prosecute some of the people who bet on football games? Is it really the government's position that every American who wants to wager on the Super Bowl must either bet with matchsticks or board a plane to Nevada?

It's not as if the government is being cheated out of tax revenue. It doesn't offer its own alternative betting service that provides jobs and revenues, and it's not as if the government allows honest operators to set up shop, pay taxes, and put some money into the community. Instead, the government turns a blind eye and an empty pocket to billions of dollars in unregulated sports and poker betting, while selectively criminalizing a few participants when it can generate some crimebusting publicity.

There aren't many better publicity targets than a golden-haired hockey star and his Playboy covergirl wife. Mrs. Betzky, perhaps best remembered for playing Matt Dillon's girlfriend in 1984's "The Flamingo Kid," saw her movie career wind down after a memorable cameo in "Police Academy 5," and she seems to have developed a taste for betting action to fill her spare time. Everyone's entitled to a hobby and she can afford it. According to the Newark, N.J.-based Star-Ledger, she made $500,000 in football bets with Tocchet's operation over the last three months and her $75,000 in Super Bowl bets included a losing $5,000 guess on the opening coin flip. Tough beat.

But don't we have to protect the integrity of sports to keep them wholesome, character-building activities? Wouldn't legalized betting open the games to corruption through point-shaving and dive-taking? Whether you believe there's none or lots of that already going on, how would legalizing sports betting outside Nevada change that? People are already betting $1 billion a year on the Super Bowl alone, 90 percent of it illegally. That's not enough to tempt evildoers?

If you think that this moralistic and inefficient public policy about sports betting somehow helps racing, think again. Anti-gambling sentiment is the primary reason that racing has been unable to expand its reach through needed legislative change. One of these years, some crusading politician's dopey anti-gambling bill is going to slip through without an exemption for legal parimutuels, jeopardizing existing account wagering and simulcasting. And wouldn't racetracks be fuller, with more likely crossover business than they currently get from slot-machine zombies, if they could offer sports betting and poker?

If government legalized, regulated, and taxed such betting, the games would be better and the public treasuries would be fuller. Instead, we live in a society whose culture encourages and sanctions everyone to join the office pool on the Super Bowl, then turns around and brands a few of those bettors as unworthy citizens and criminals.