Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The legalization of sports gambling in the US was a mistake | Bhaskar Sunkara

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On Wednesday, the NBA announced that Jontay Porter, a center for the Toronto Raptors, was banned from the league for life. An investigation found that the bench player disclosed confidential information to gamblers, exited a match early to influence an “over/under” wager on his stat line, and bet on games using a friend’s account.

Porter’s actions shouldn’t be trivialized. Sport is an important part of our culture – and fair competition and the integrity of results are essential to it. But the real threat to sports and the livelihoods of billions of fans lies with the leagues, special interests and media outlets integrating addictive gambling with the games we love. The profit-seeking corporate encouragement of this behavior needs to be countered with strict federal regulation before an emerging public health crisis gets even worse.

In the 2010s, the Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, and the state of New Jersey challenged the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (Paspa), which prohibited new state-sanctioned sports gambling. Legal books were limited to a few grandfathered states, like Nevada. At the time, the scope of illegal sports gambling was unclear, with some putting the number at $50bn.

The US supreme court took on the case in 2018, ruling that Paspa was unconstitutional. Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia have made sports betting legal, with legislation pending in other areas. The dream of figures like the NBA’s Adam Silver, who immediately after becoming commissioner in 2014 published a New York Times op-ed advocating legalization, was fulfilled.

The early results have made billions for gambling companies, television networks, state governments, and players and owners alike. It’s been a nightmare, however, for millions of ordinary people.

When I bet on sports in high school, the process involved studying the Vegas lines in the Daily News and placing small bets with a local bookie. By college, it meant navigating to an offshore gambling site, possibly converting some money to bitcoin, and placing a wager before the start of a match. Today, technology has changed things radically: we can seamlessly place bets on our addictive smartphones and we don’t just bet before the games, we can bet on the outcome of every play, with AI models generating odds in real time.

Sports betting apps store dozens of data points on every customer: they know what you like to bet on, when to send you push notifications, and what offers can draw you back in if you haven’t gambled in a while. Like any drug, gambling activates the brain’s reward system. But most street-level dopamine-peddlers don’t have access to the power of big data.

Nor do they have marketing departments. If you’ve watched a sports game, there’s no doubt you’ve seen advertisements from FanDuel, Draft Kings, BetMGM or any number of legal sportsbooks. They feature celebrities and athletes – people like Kevin Garnett, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Patton Oswalt and the entire Manning football dynasty – encouraging you to sign up and risk your wages. Podcasts at media networks like the Ringer are dedicated entirely to betting. ESPN, owned by the conservative Disney corporation, has even gone to the extreme of hosting its own sportsbook, ESPN BET.

The efforts are paying off. Last year, Americans legally wagered $120bn on sports, up 27.5% compared with 2022. And billions more are probably still bet illegally.

This sharp increase is a reminder that legalization does not just bring black markets into the light of day – it serves to radically expand markets. In addition to the social stigma that surrounded it, the barrier to entry for sports gambling used to be knowing a bookie and being willing to wager in cash. Then it became being tech-savvy enough to navigate sketchy offshore sites. Now it’s just being 18 years old and having a smartphone and a credit card.

It’s no surprise that young people are suffering the most from legalization. According to a St Bonaventure/Siena Research survey, 39% of men and 20% of women aged 18 to 49 years old bet on sporting events. Among young men, 38% say they’re betting more than they should, 19% have lied about the extent of their betting, and 18% have bet and lost money meant for meeting their financial obligations.

Gambling helplines have naturally been flooded. A recent 60 Minutes program notes that in the five years since New Jersey legalized sports gambling, calls to the state’s service has tripled, with the largest caller demographic being between 25 and 34.

Yet there seems to be no real constituency for tight federal regulation, much less prohibition. A libertarian-influenced Republican party is happy to support free markets, no matter their corrosive social effects.

Many progressives are also more wary of punitive states than the actions of powerful corporations. Legalized gambling gives them more taxes to spend without trying to take it from the pockets of big business or wealthy individuals. Never mind that the state is forced to absorb the externalities created by legalization and that the push has facilitated a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Advances in artificial intelligence will only make online betting more addictive in the years to come, and no doubt this environment will create more Jontay Porters in the future. Ultimately, Americans won’t be able to take on the powerful forces corrupting our culture until we decide we want to live in a society that celebrates earning money, not winning it.

  • Bhaskar Sunkara is the president of the Nation, founding editor of Jacobin, and author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequalities

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