In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the new commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Adam Silver, says that he favors allowing legalized sports betting throughout the United States. The announcement both surprises and confirms. It surprises because no leader of any major U.S. sports league, either college or professional, has ever expressed anything other than opposition to sports betting. But Mr. Silver’s about-face also confirms a trend — for some time now, big-time sports and big-time gambling have been quietly exploring ways to make money together.
So we can thank Mr. Silver for making the idea official. And we can welcome this opportunity to consider anew whether commercial sports betting is a good idea. Let’s ask ourselves four questions.
First, what positive good for society might be gained by legalizing sports betting? Tellingly, Mr. Silver is silent on this point. Other than trotting out the idea that legalized gambling is good because plenty of people already do it illegally — the argument of commercial gamblers everywhere since gambling began — Mr. Silver is in the uncomfortable position of advocating a major change in American sports without being able to offer a single positive reason why.
Don’t blame Mr. Silver. He offers no reason because none exists. Like all forms of gambling, sports betting is the sterile transfer of money from some people’s pockets into other people’s pockets, producing nothing new and nothing of lasting value. Its economic impact is similar to throwing your money on the street so someone else can pick it up — it redistributes wealth without creating it. And because this nonproductive activity nevertheless uses up time and resources, it almost certainly reduces our national standard of living.
The commissioner apparently thinks that the NBA can make money from sports betting — that his league can pick up some of that money thrown onto the street — and on that point he may be right. But let’s realize that there is no larger motive behind his move.
Second, will legalized sports betting create new harms for people who’ll be encouraged to place bets? On this issue, too, Mr. Silver is oddly silent, as if such a question is none of his concern. But shouldn’t it be? If sports gambling becomes both legal and encouraged, more people are likely to gamble. And as more people gamble, more are likely to hurt themselves, their families and their communities through excessive gambling. An already significant social problem — you can see it portrayed in the 2005 movie “Two for the Money” — would almost certainly get worse.
Third, will legalized sports betting encourage cheating and game-fixing? Do basketballs bounce? An incontrovertible truth of U.S. sports history — and the main reason why all league officials until now have opposed sports betting — is that gambling and corruption, soliciting bets and enticing players and referees to cheat, go together like ham and eggs. Amazingly, Mr. Silver essentially wishes this issue away, implying that more gambling, so long as it’s legal, will result in less cheating. It almost certainly won’t. (In a nearly comic touch, Tim Donaghy, the former NBA referee who went to jail for betting on games that he officiated, recently endorsed Mr. Silver’s proposal.)
Finally, leaving aside issues of cheating, would legalized sports betting change the meaning of American sports? The answer is yes, and here in my view is the deepest reason why commercial sports betting is harmful. Betting on games subtly but profoundly shifts our focus away from the game itself — the sport for the sake of the sport — and instead encourages us to experience the game as a means of measuring and grasping for money. In doing so, it violates everything that, as children, drew us to sports in the first place.
Remember, when you place a bet with a bookie, you usually aren't even betting on who’s going to win the game — you are betting against a point spread established by the bookie. The game itself becomes something of a tangent. Is this what we want our sports to mean to us? Not the thing itself, but the commercialization of the thing?
And not just any old commercialization. Let’s also remember that sports betting is fundamentally an income transfer from the betting public to professional bookies. Over time, the bookies always win. (Mr. Silver knows this; he just wants his cut.) In this sense, legalized sports gambling will publicly identify the meaning of American sports with something very close to a fleecing operation. How can such a change be good for our sports or our society?
Mr. Silver would have us believe that the main issue is whether the activity is legal or illegal. But that’s not true. The main issue is the activity itself. Sports gambling is not harmful because it’s illegal. It’s illegal because it’s harmful.