The Sports Gambling Gold Rush Is On—and It Has a Long History of Corrupting Sports

From a New York Times opinion piece by Spencer Bokat-Lindell headlined “The Sports Gambling Gold Rush Is On. Should We Be Concerned?”:

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the national ban on sports betting. In the years since, about 30 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the practice, and now more than 100 million Americans live in places where they can legally gamble on games.

And business, unsurprisingly, is booming: In 2020, the sports betting industry raked in $1.5 billion in revenue, a 69 percent increase from the year before. In the first quarter of 2021, revenue rose another 270 percent — and that was before the N.F.L. agreed to allow ads for sports gambling during its games. In the lead-up to the Super Bowl this year, the American Gaming Association estimated that 31.4 million Americans would place $7.6 billion in legal bets on the game, both records and increases of 35 percent and 78 percent over last year.

It’s the kind of legislative about-face that proponents of marijuana and sex work legalization could only dream of. But will the mainstreaming of sports betting also bring a wave of addiction, financial ruin and corruption, as some warn, and how should we deal with the fallout? Here’s what people are saying.

The risks of sports gambling when all bets are off

Most adults who bet on sports can do so without getting themselves into trouble. But according to Timothy Fong, a director of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, about 1 percent of American adults have a gambling disorder, the core symptom of which is the continuation of gambling despite harmful consequences. (Gambling is the only addiction unrelated to substances in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) More than 20 percent of compulsive gamblers end up filing for bankruptcy, according to Debt.org, a debt-help organization.

With sports gambling now accessible to a much larger audience, some commentators worry that the number of gambling addicts is set to surge. “The easier it is to gamble, the more unhappy outcomes you’ll get,” the Times columnist Ross Douthat argues. “The more money in the industry, the stronger the incentives to come up with new ways to hook people and then bleed and ruin them. And all that damage is likely to fall disproportionately on the psychologically vulnerable and economically marginal, the strong preying on the weak.”

And indeed, there appears already to be good reason for concern.In 2021, the National Problem Gambling help line (1-800-522-4700) received an average of more than 22,500 calls a month, up from 14,800 per month the year before.

Is this a natural consequence of human nature unleashed from the law, or is there something particular about America’s economic and cultural life that might make people here especially susceptible to problem gambling? In The Atlantic, Stephen Marche attributes at least some of the newfound interest in gambling of all kinds to a widely shared feeling of economic precarity, which feeds off ever more desperate attempts to escape it: “Gambling expresses, through entertainment, the basic truth of the moment: Everything — every little thing — can be converted into a marketplace with winners and losers, and the house always wins. The only vice left is being broke.”

And left broke many are. Last month, the Times sports columnist Kurt Streeter reached out to nearly a dozen people as old as 82 and as young as 17 in recovery for sports gambling addiction. “I heard horror stories,” Streeter wrote. “They told me about shattered families, lost jobs and foreclosed homes. They spoke of arrests, convictions, jail time and suicide. I heard how dangerous this time of the year is: the end of the college football season, the N.F.L. playoffs, all the money that can be won on the Super Bowl, or, more likely, lost.”

A bad influence on athletics?

Even if you’re not especially concerned about the social harms of a more liberal legal environment for gambling, sports fans may still find reasons to oppose the creeping influence of betting over professional athletics. As Will Leitch notes in The Atlantic, gambling has a long history of corrupting sports by incentivizing athletes to rig games. One of the most prominent examples in the United States was the 1919 Black Sox scandal, which involved eight players who were banned from baseball for conspiring to throw the World Series.

Leitch fears the legalization of sports gambling could trigger a regression. “Tens of thousands of collegiate athletes aren’t getting any compensation whatsoever — and I’m not just talking about big-time college sports,” he writes. “You can bet right now on, say, a Coppin State University volleyball game. Do you know how easy it would be to fix a volleyball game that no one is otherwise paying attention to?”

The increasing prevalence of gambling ads during games also takes some of the fun out of watching them, Stephen Silver writesfor The Philadelphia Inquirer. “When I spend a Sunday afternoon watching football, almost every other commercial is for betting apps,” he says. “When I walk into Lincoln Financial Field, I notice the Fox Bet Lounge and ads for other gambling operations. If only for a moment, this takes me out of the experience and detracts from the excitement of a close game or rare athletic achievements.”

Can sports betting be legalized responsibly?

A common argument against the formal policing of any vice is that it does little to suppress the behavior at issue; more often than not, criminalization merely drives it underground.

“Before we envision a country of rundown addicts selling baby formula to place one last parlay into their phones, we should consider the ubiquity of sports gambling even before the apps showed up,” Jay Caspian Kang of Times Opinion writes. “ESPN recently estimated that under-the-table bets on N.F.L. and college football games alone exceeded $95 billion per year. (‘Under the table’ generally refers to bets taken by a bookie or through an offshore gambling site.) The point is, people have always bet on sports, and they probably always will, legally or not.”

For Kang, as for many others, the primary concern is not sports gambling’s legalization so much as its social normalization and, even more than that, its commercialization. To permit a vice is one thing; to promote and profit from it is quite another. A 2021 studypublished in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that there was a direct relationship between exposure to gambling advertisements and problem gambling. And the ad market for gambling is exploding right now, with federal oversight that is “downright nonexistent,” as Streeter says.

What might a better approach — a public health approach, as some have called it — to gambling look like? To start with, Eric Webber, a senior clinician at Caron Treatment Centers, argues that regulators should ban gambling ads during sports broadcasts, as Britain has done. “In the U.S., we have also put limits on advertisements for many other vices, such as tobacco use, where there is a compelling public health need,” he writes. “Like smoking, gambling is a public health threat, and our advertising policy should reflect that.”

Many casinos, both physical and virtual, try to lull gamblers into a state of “attenuated thought” that keeps them betting, in part by making transactions as frictionless as possible. The Times’s Peter Coy believes that casinos should be made to replace some of that friction through behavioral interventions. A 2018 article in Gaming Law Review he cites, for example, found that one of the most effective policy changes for reducing gambling expenditure was the introduction of smoking bans that made gamblers take a break for a smoke.

On the other hand, some argue that it’s inconsistent to regulate gambling advertisements and consumption more heavily than we do other vices. “Sports betting is legal now, and the glut of advertising we’re seeing for it is no different than that for tequila, beer, drugs for previously unknown ailments, unhealthy foods, unnecessary beauty products, expensive sports cars dangerously speeding across icy terrain, and more,” writes Howard Gensler, co-founder and editor of the gambling website bettorsinsider.com.

“Is this potentially a problem for people with addictive personalities who may be prone to gamble?” he asks. “Perhaps. But welcome to America, where the economy is designed by multinational corporations to suck every last dollar out of the pockets of working folks. How about all those ads with cute groundhogs selling lottery tickets?”

Spencer Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor in the New York Times Opinion section.

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