About five years ago I traveled to Las Vegas for work, where I collected a bet at the behest of a friend who would almost certainly fit the New York State Office of Addiction Services’ definition of a problem gambler. My friend had placed the bet with a somewhat seedy sportsbook the last time he was in town – which I think is a common occurrence – but for one reason or another he couldn’t collect his winnings in person. “Make sure you get something to drink,” my friend told me. “You are free.”
I didn’t mind doing that favor. The world of sports betting has been almost completely invisible to me and I’m realizing that now by helping my friend and listening to his lengthy monologues about the difficulties of accessing private networks, also favored by serial infringers of copyright, to place quasi-legal bets Irish sports betting sites had given me a glimpse into a universe that was about to disappear.
Half a decade later, the private world of VPNs and off-the-strip odds makers — not to mention real bookies, which I never asked my friend about — is poised to become as distant as visiting the condominium pot dealers of yore, with their aloha shirts and exotic pets. Sports betting is legal in about 30 states and 18 allow sports betting online. All major sports leagues have “official betting partners” that dominate television broadcasts; This is especially true for the NFL. Apparently every second commercial is for a sports betting app, and pregame and halftime programming is left to promotions for FOX Bet and other services. Which was recently illegal in most parts of the country – and can still result in the suspension of players like the Atlanta Falcons’ Calvin Ridley, who is out for the 2022 season after reportedly betting about $4,000 on NFL games has – is now an otherwise unremarkable facet of American professional sports.
My question is, is that a good thing? Who Really Benefits From Legalizing Online Gambling? How does sports betting fit into the meta-narrative of progress, in which large-scale cultural changes in this country are often subsumed?
For all the complexity of recent American history, we generally tell ourselves one of two stories about the changes our society has undergone over the last century or so. One is a story about liberation: the struggle of a persecuted minority to secure their ancient freedoms. The canon example is the civil rights movement, which is understood that way by nearly all Americans, but in the decades since, progressives have framed everything, including repealing obscenity laws and legalizing same-sex marriage, in more or less the same way.
The other story does not involve upholding unalienable rights, but rather a seemingly reluctant acknowledgment that various pervasive social ills (such as drug use) should be mitigated rather than banned. For example, clean-needle exchange programs and the distribution of prophylactics in schools should make sense; It was the most common depiction of abortion rights, even in the days of “safe, legal and rare.” While not as comprehensively heroic as civil rights or First Amendment absolutism, harm reduction is nevertheless understood as a triumph of the same essentially humane principles.
Which of these two categories – enshrining a fundamental good of the first order in law, or contritely accepting a seemingly ineradicable vice – does the legalization of online sports betting fall into? For my part, I don’t understand how being able to place a $30 prop bet from the comfort of the toilet seat is a civil right, let alone how the messy legislative process that led to legalized gambling compares to the generation. Exciting fight to end segregation for example. Even the most ardent FanDuel Sportsbook supporters would probably agree with me on this.
Nor is online gambling an example of the other kind of advance, the legal mitigation of a widespread social problem. Libertarians might give the impression that if people in rural Southwest Michigan, where I live, were unable to deposit $500 instantly through Barstool’s Sportsbook app, they would be thrown straight into the knee-breaking arms of Rocco and Moose – assuming they weren’t already logging into their home dark web servers to do something at Ladbrokes. But sports betting — with the exception of the well-known March Madness office pools and friendly bets like the one that got me shaving my head after the Michigan-Notre Dame season opener in 2018 — wasn’t particularly far from its legalization in American society spread.
In case it’s not clear, I’m suspicious of the second set of narratives about progress. One reason is that the seemingly disinterested prophets of harm reduction seem almost painfully naïve when it comes to the extent to which they condone behavior that they themselves tolerate as deplorable. Whatever one thinks of marijuana, the risks of which are no longer debatable in fashion circles, I doubt most proponents of its legalization envisioned that by the year 2022, every billboard along the length of I-94 near my little City garish advertisements for so-called pharmacies with names like Mint Cannabis and Herbana.
Prior to the legalization of online gambling, the vast majority of Americans had never been tempted to visit a bookie or fly to the handful of jurisdictions that allowed in-person sports betting. What millions are watching now are endless misleading commercials aired during America’s most-watched TV shows, inviting them to risk their money on platforms funded by venture capitalists, not organized crime. Many of the commercials I see while watching football promote so-called “risk-free” betting, a phrase that should probably violate various truth-in-advertising laws. What they mean is that if you bet $300 and win, you can withdraw your winnings (in five to seven days via bank transfer, or instantly if you opt for the platform’s branded prepaid card); If you lose, your forfeited bets become credit which can be used for future bets. Risk free bets serve one purpose: to ensure you keep using the platform.
One bet I would make is that legal sports betting is not going to go away, no matter what concerns some of us may have. Total stakes are already close to $120 billion and the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in favor of online gambling is unlikely to be reversed. To mitigate a tiny fraction of the population who engaged in behavior that once considered immoral (or “harmful,” as many would like to say today) might have protected them from the worst consequences of their actions, we have placed many millions of others at apparent risk version of the same dangers while enriching powerful corporate interests. Last but not least, the rise of online gambling should give us food for thought the next time we’re asked to make similarly reckless assumptions.
Risk or not, the drinks in Vegas were actually free.
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/05/online-gambling-sports-betting/629790/?utm_source=feed America will learn to regret legalized gambling