Keith Strudler: Gambling On Sports

May 16, 2018

Just to be clear, I do not particularly enjoy betting on sports. There’s a lot of reasons for that, including the fact that once you have money on a game, you tend to worry more about finance than athleticism. Also, I tend to be really risk averse when it comes to money. For me, the anguish of losing $50 is way more pronounced than the joy of winning $100.

So, the recent Supreme Court decision around sports gambling in the US doesn’t really do much for me, other than give me something to talk about. For millions of Americans who do love gambling on sports, for state governments, organized crime, and professional and amateur sports organizations, for all those people, it’s a totally different story. That’s because on Monday the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a federal law that essentially made gambling on individual sporting games illegal everywhere but Nevada, where nearly $5 billion were bet on sports last year alone. Now, that pales to the estimated $150 billion gambled illegally on sports last year. It seems now that organized crime’s loss may be the state of New Jersey’s gain, as the Garden State was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, trying for years to become something of an East Coast Vegas, especially with the decay of Atlantic City. Expect other states, including Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania, to be right behind. I imagine that within short time, you will have the opportunity to legally lose money on sports in pretty much every state in the nation. That’s progress.

On the other side of the argument historically were the major professional sports leagues, like the NFL and NBA, and the NCAA, where, lets remember, athletes do not get paid. These organizations’ argument against sports betting typically came back to one, highly overused word -- integrity. In other words, if you allow people to bet on sports, it’s possible for an athlete or a coach to be financially induced to change the outcome of the game -- even if ever so slightly. In basketball, it’s called point shaving, where one player makes a couple of intentional bad plays so they don’t cover the spread. It’s somewhat harder to do in other sports, but it’s reason no pro sports leagues have put a team in Nevada until the NHL just did -- and why the NCAA won’t play championships in Vegas, despite it’s obvious tourist appeal. Of course, there’s not a ton of logic to this, since any kind of illicit activity is going happen through the Mafia instead of the Mandalay Bay. And beyond that, there’s not a whole lot of professional athletes -- especially influential ones that can alter the outcome of a game -- that would risk their careers over a side wager. NBA players average around $7 million a year, before endorsements and such. That’s probably a non-starter.

That said, this verdict raises a few interesting points. First, while the NFL in particular may have once balked at wide spread sports gambling, expect that battle cry to fade away as the NFL works with the federal government on a gambling fee to go to the League. Considering the NFL’s sagging ratings and fan disinterest over everything from the Anthem to concussions, an influx of gambling cash could be just the trick to avoid a looming player lockout. Second, the most important party here isn’t really the pro leagues. It’s college. It’s one thing to bet money on athletes who are making obscene amounts of money for their efforts -- although do expect the players’ unions to have their say about this -- but it’s entirely different to promote widespread legalized gambling over unpaid labor. You want to make the argument that these are amateur, student athletes? It’s a lot harder when you can place a wager on that kid from Kentucky at you local gas station. If you’re looking for the straw that breaks the easy peace of college sports, look no further.

And lastly, I get why the Court ruled this way. It’s not fair to make this legal one place and not another. But let’s not pretend this is some momentous victory for humanity. Like it or not, gambling is drug, and one that often preys on our worst selves at our lowest moments. It’s neither healthy nor productive, even if you want to argue it can be fun. But so can a lot of things. I won’t argue the decision, but I might question the victory.

Will this become an epidemic? Will it ruin sports? I wouldn’t bet on that. And I’m not much of a gambler anyway.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler 

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