I’ll Take That Bet: Gambling and Sport

I am not a gambler: I rarely, if ever, make a ‘friendly’ bet on a game. And it’s been over a decade since I was in Las Vegas and made any kind of legal bet. I don’t even make out NCAA brackets.

This is not for any moral reasons against gambling, I just don’t like to lose money. Indeed, gambling in itself seems morally unproblematic. The moral arguments, such as they are, against gambling are rather weak and tendentious. It is true that many religions have prohibitions against gambling, and so the religiously observant might regard the failure to obey such prohibitions as a vice. But that puts gambling, in my mind, in a similar position to bacon (mmmmm bacon). Observant Jews and Muslims might regard the eating of bacon as a violation of their religious commandments and that violation an immorality of sorts, but bacon itself seems beside the point. It is the keeping of the religious commandment that is important (and the failure that is regarded as sinful). Those who do not keep kosher or halal are not immoral for eating bacon.

Like many otherwise innocuous activities, there can be harmful consequences to overindulgence or dependency (again, bacon is a good analogy here). Behaving irresponsibly or impulsively seems to be the cause of the problem in such cases, not gambling as such. I don’t want to trivialize the negative consequences for those with gambling problems. The response, though, should not be moralizing, but psychological. We ought not to turn those people into “sinners” or criminals, but work to help them solve their problems.

Much like arguments for the prohibition of other ‘vices’ like drinking or sex, the arguments against gambling are most often based on a supposed link between gambling and the debasement of one’s moral character. Somehow gambling itself turns us into bad individuals, encouraging the uglier parts of ourselves. I am skeptical of such a causal link in part because it ignores any difference between use and abuse. That is, sex, drugs, gambling can all be abused and engaged in with harmful and deleterious effects. But they can also be used in unproblematic and beneficial ways. Given how long these sort of ‘vices’ have been a part of human civilization and how many people casually partake in them, it’s hard to believe the “abuse” should be the dominant paradigm here.

Gambling and Sports

The issue of gambling and sport is more complicated. Whatever the status of the moral arguments about individual gambling, there are real worries about the integrity of sport. There is great concern that gambling interests would interfere with and corrupt games. Fears of match-fixing, shaving points, and broken knee-caps abound. These are legitimate and well-founded concerns. There is a history of such activities in the US and around the world. No fan of sport wants that.

Aside from important legal and jurisprudencial issues resulting from the recent US Supreme Court decision in Murphy v NCAA, there will be a radical change to the relationship of the professional leagues and gambling. As more states will likely follow New Jersey and legalize sports gambling, the leagues will find ways to profit from gambling. The most obvious and likely immediate source of revenue will be advertising and co-branding, but there is no doubt that they are working on other creative ways to tap into the gambling dollars.

As the US moves forward with what will likely be a huge increase in legal betting, it is important to maintain the integrity of the leagues and games (and kneecaps).

There are a few main reasons why I think legalization will not undermine the integrity of sport.

First, the leagues do not want to be seen as turning into the WWE. Any whiff of fixing or seeming appearance of interference will be met by the leagues harshly. The have strong incentives to keep such interference out.

Second, legalized gambling is run by casino and gaming companies, not mafioso and gangsters. Steve Wynn is not Michael Corleone. There is little reason to watch or gamble on a sporting event that is fixed, so these businesses have a strong incentives to keep at arm’s length from the games themselves. The cynic might say: at least appear like they are arm’s length. But the easiest way to appear as though one is not interfering is not to interfere. And in most cases, the house wins regardless of the outcome of the game so there is little point in trying to interfere. In other words, the payout for such interference is not worth the risk.

(an aside: there will be individual actors for whom the payout is worth the risk. Such individuals already exist and take that risk today. If anything legalization will further marginalize these individual actors as they get pushed aside by legitimate organizations.)

Lastly, legalization reduces hypocrisy. Captain Renault is not the only one shocked to find gambling going on. Illegal gambling of all kinds is widespread and persistent. Anyone who wants to gamble can easily, I assume, find a bookie and place a bet. Betting odds for games are widely reported on all major media outlets. The hypocrisy of the current system does far more to undermine morality and respect for law than threats posed by legal gambling.

While I think gambling should be legal, I also think that strict fraud regulations should be enforced. Anyone in the leagues involved in any match-fixing or other gambling interference should be held liable and prosecuted for fraud. Since these individuals hold a kind of trust from the fans, sponsors, and others that they aren’t going to fix games or the like, then violating that trust is the violation of a kind of fiduciary duty. The violation of this duty might then lead to the violator being civilly or even, in egregious cases, criminal liable. This is one way to help keep such interference limited.

Be it drugs, gambling, prostitution, or alcohol, prohibition doesn’t stop the behavior it is prohibiting. It merely pushes it into the shadowy darkness of a criminal underworld. Most of the harmful consequences of these activities are caused by the illegal status, not the activity itself. In general, then, sunlight is the best antiseptic for corruption. Transparency of law keeps things above board and away from the criminal organizations. Of course, legalization is not a panacea. There will be problems. But legal sports betting is better than illegal sports betting. The problems can more easily be identified and dealt with—and without breaking kneecaps.



1 Comment

Filed under corruption, gambling, law

One response to “I’ll Take That Bet: Gambling and Sport

  1. Pingback: Arizona Legalizes Sport Gambling | The Sports Ethicist

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