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Is Legalized Betting Corrupting American Sports and Civic Culture?

Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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by David Lewis Schaefer
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Sports betting has exploded in popularity in the United States, with Americans wagering a record $119.8 billion in 2023, up more than 27 percent from 2022. But mounting evidence suggests that this development has had negative unanticipated consequences for both American sports and culture.

In April, for instance, the National Basketball Association permanently banned Toronto Raptors forward Jontay Porter after finding that he not only bet on at least 13 league games, in violation of League rules, but twice withdrew for pretended “medical” reasons so that two gamblers who had placed “prop” bets against his scoring could win large payoffs. The two are accused of getting Porter to leave after a few minutes of play so they could successfully bet against him.

The Porter scandal occurred only weeks after Major League Baseball’s biggest star, Shohei Ohtani, was connected to a gambling scandal when his longtime interpreter was accused of stealing millions of dollars from him in order to pay an illegal bookmaker.

In early June, San Diego Padres infielder Tucupita Marcano was permanently barred from baseball for having placed hundreds of bets on games with legal sportsbooks since 2022, contrary to league regulations. Four other MLB players have also received year-long suspensions for having bet on games while still in the minors.

These sanctions reflect strenuous efforts by regulators of both professional and college sports to prevent acts that would undermine fans’ confidence in the integrity of the games they were watching.

Of course, there have long been periodic gambling scandals in sports. Perhaps the most infamous was the 1919 “Black Sox” incident, in which members of the Chicago White Sox were found to have “thrown” the World Series. Several point-shaving scandals involving college basketball (an easier game to fix than baseball, given the smaller team size) have also occurred, including one that involved seven major teams in 1950-51, and more recently others at Northwestern and Arizona State in 1994-95. But the enormous popularity of mobile phone betting apps like DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars Sportsbook means that sports betting, and hence the potential for abuse, is now more accessible than ever.

Recognizing the dangers of sports gambling, especially in the age of mass media and ever-increasing expenditures on sports, in 1992 Congress enacted the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), with the support of the heads of the four major professional leagues (baseball, basketball, football, hockey). PASPA made it illegal for any government or individual to operate or promote gambling schemes that entailed betting on the athletic performance of either professional or amateur athletes. (The act left a carveout for Nevada.) PASPA was also known as the Bradley Act, after its most important congressional advocate, then-Senator (and New York Knicks Hall of Famer) Bill Bradley.

The hopes of PASPA’s supporters were dashed in 2018, however, when a 7-2 Supreme Court majority ruled it an unconstitutional invasion of state governments’ prerogatives under the 10th Amendment. The Court’s reasoning was questionable, since (in my judgment) PASPA could easily have been upheld as an exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Once gambling is legalized, nothing prevents individuals in one state from betting on games played elsewhere, and most professional contests, along with many amateur ones, take place among teams from different states. 

With the Court’s PASPA ruling came the whirlwind. The temptation of drawing income from the taxation of legal betting proved too strong for most states to resist. In less than six years since the law was struck down, 38 states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have legalized sports betting in some form. As of the start of 2024, legally regulated sportsbooks had taken in over $300 billion since 2018, while paying local and state governments over $2 billion. 

Meanwhile, sports league executives have abandoned their previous scruples about associating with sportsbooks, enticed by the large ad revenue. The NFL now has multiple official sports betting partners, who last year spent more than $500 million on ads during NFL games.

But observing the sports gambling scene last April, the highly principled Mr. Bradley observed that while there hadn’t yet “been a scandal” as a result of the increasing intertwining of professional sports with the gambling industry since 2018, “all of the conditions are there for the untoward to occur.” Sure enough, shortly thereafter the Porter scandal was uncovered.

Yet the chief dangers from legalized sports betting may not arise from the risk of corruption, real as that problem is.

Rather, the deeper harm is that sports betting – even more than casinos and state lotteries – preys on the weak-willed and those who can least afford to lose money. According to a 2022 New York Times report, more than six million Americans now suffer from a sports gambling addiction – and it’s easy to see why. Just watch any professional baseball, basketball, or football game (as I frequently do): the broadcast is interrupted roughly every five to ten minutes by advertisements for betting sites encouraging users to sign up and place a wager.

These ads often take the form of promoting a deceiving “sign-up bonus.” One typical offer from DraftKings promises new users “$150 in bonus bets” for placing a $5 wager. The bets, of course, aren’t necessarily about who will win the game. As in the Porter case, fans are constantly offered the chance on whether certain players will hit a home run in the next inning, how many points a player will score, or how many yards a top wide receiver will have in the first half. The possibilities are endless.

The sponsors of those ads know what they are doing. Just as MIT scholar Natasha Dow Schull demonstrated in her insightful 2012 exposé of the casino business, Addiction by Design, companies that profit from large-scale gambling have thoroughly studied the psychology of their likely targets, and they know that a large percentage of those who fail to win their first $5 bet won’t be able to resist trying again, while those who do win the first time round will soon lose their $150 and then lose a lot more trying to win it back. 

Naturally, the gambling companies want to appear as if they are showing due regard for their patrons’ welfare. Hence, just like state governments that run ads for state lotteries, they are sure to include in every pitch a small note urging viewers to bet “responsibly” (whatever that might mean) and even offering an 800 number to call if you are suffering from gambling addiction. A comparable practice would be to restore cigarette advertising to television, while providing a number to call if you think you have contracted lung cancer. 

Americans have always been a gambling people, and the reader will find no condemnation here of horse racing, Friday-night poker games, or even (if only it weren’t run by the mob) the low-stakes numbers racket. But going to the track takes work. Poker is a game combining skill, guts, and (typically) friendship. By contrast, it takes neither effort nor skill to place a bet while sitting in your armchair, and there is no limit, short of bankruptcy, on how much you can lose. 

The other, and in a way still deeper, harm of legalized, on-your-screen sports betting is that it undermines the valuable role that sports have traditionally played in American life. Of course, boys and (increasingly, over the past 60 or more years, girls) love to play sports. Watching superior players, even on local high-school teams, encourages younger kids to try to emulate their skills.

But for those of us who don’t make it to the pros or are unable to play recreationally as adults, watching local teams play, whether in person or (in the postwar era) on television, has long been a source of bonding with our friends, our communities, and our families. 

Doubtless, those team loyalties still remain. But think what a different impression today’s young people must get of sports when watching games on television, bombarded with gambling ads, from what all previous generations received. If they see their parents feverishly viewing just to see whether one of their bets pays off, won’t the team’s success, or just admiring an individual’s skill, seem dull by comparison?

The legalization of sports betting, lotteries, and casinos reflects the same sort of disregard among present-day public officials that the movement to legalize addictive drugs and prostitution (“sex work”) does for what used to be understood to be one of the most important roles of government in a republic: shaping the people’s character in order to build a healthy society.

Encouraging legitimate work, familial bonding, the pursuit of excellence, patriotism, and virtues like courage, thrift, and self-reliance will do infinitely more good for our country than the financial subsidies and redistributive programs that today’s politicians can’t resist offering. (And by cutting back on those programs, governments will easily be able to forego the corrupt revenue they receive from encouraging gambling.)

In view of the harm that legalized sports betting has caused, one must wish that Congress and the president would re-enact PASPA in some modified form, and that the Supreme Court will take account of the foregoing problems in reviewing its constitutionality.

David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.

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Pete from St Pete
Pete from St Pete
25 days ago

Too much money corrupts everything it touches. Including sports, government, charities, churches, universities, etc. Such is the way of mankind and the world.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
25 days ago

I bet you $1000 sports betting corrupts play.

Carol
Carol
25 days ago

Seems every area of life today is being destroyed by elevating vices instead of virtues! All for money and power! God is not happy! And he sees all!

Everett Sanborn
Everett Sanborn
25 days ago

I really dislike it. I have been a college and professional sports fan for 76 years. Judge Landis and Commissioner Giamatti are turning in their graves. Wonder what Pete Rose thinks of it? But we have to realize that anything that improves the bottom line for MLB or the NFl etc is what will happen. Always follow the money.

Laura Bentz
Laura Bentz
24 days ago

First of all, the present President is NOT going to do anything to morally benefit society… They want low information, desperate voters so they will vote Democrat… Next, to me, sports had become like a “religion”. We’ve gone overboard with it to make it almost like the Roman games of yore… Way out of proportion to what they should be in a “moral” society. We have put organized sports on a pedestal, and we are worshipping it more than we worship God… I remember when we played street games as a kid and had a lot of fun without all the rules, regulations and adult interference that the kids get now. I really don’t see anything getting any better any time soon…. Morality is going in the wrong direction. And it just keeps snowballing as it heads downhill to destroy the weak and the vulnerable.

Len Tatko
Len Tatko
25 days ago

Legalizing betting in sports is very immoral!! Keep sports clean!

Eamonn Thomas Smyth
Eamonn Thomas Smyth
25 days ago

Gambling only pays while you are winning-. Today’s gambling is sucking people into a money pit they can’t get out of.

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