Utah’s fight to keep legal gambling from its borders just got a lot harder. Like a gas seeping through cracks in locked doors and windows, the pernicious something-for-nothing ethic that already sucks billions of dollars from Americans is becoming pervasive in American life.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling Monday pushed this sorry spectacle along, striking down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which Congress passed in 1992.
By some estimates, 32 states are likely to begin offering sports-related wagers within the next five years. Utah won’t be one of them, but with wagering reaching smartphones and tablets, how hard will it be to keep it away?
For many Americans already obsessed with sports from the collegiate level to the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major Leauge Baseball, the fan experience is about to change. Advertisements for sports gambling are likely to become ubiquitous, both on television and through the internet.
A state may take pains to limit these efforts to its borders, but borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the digital age.
Utah outlaws gambling and its advertising for good reason. Gambling produces nothing of value. It takes money people freely give, then redistributes a small bit of it to a few winners. The rest goes to pay for casino operations or, in this case, sports wagering operations.
And while some would argue that gambling is a recreational activity, this ignores the enormous social costs. Earl Grinols, an economics professor at Baylor University, did a cost-benefit analysis a few years ago that concluded costs outweigh benefits by at least 3 to 1.
Those aren’t good odds.
Rachel Volberg, a research associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that problem gambling increases as gambling opportunities become more plentiful. Other studies have found that problem gamblers make up a large percentage of casino revenues.
Americans have been through this before. Gambling was legal, acceptable and rampant in several states in the 19th century until scandals changed public opinion. By the early 20th century, governments had zero tolerance for it. That changed when economies went sour and states began looking for easy money.
Today, gambling interests are tightly connected to many state governments, to the point where few such states rarely consider whether gambling is living up to its promises.
An editorial in USA Today in 2014 called New Jersey “a prime example of how states are the worst offenders in the world of gambling. They are both addicts and pushers. They throw temper tantrums and upset settled policy when their fix of gambling revenue runs low. And rather than compensating for the effects, they encourage their own citizens to gamble more and in different ways.”
New Jersey led the way in the current push to legalize sports betting.
The major sports all fought this change, expressing worries about the integrity of their games. Proponents say too many safeguards are in place today to allow for the blatant fixing of games, but when fans are able to use smartphones to wager immediately on things such as upcoming play calls or seemingly trivial acts by a player, opportunities for abuse abound.
In 2014, a Norwegian gambling website offered odds on whether Uruguay’s Luis Suarez would bite another player during the World Cup. He did so, making a few people rich. How easy would it be to rig such a thing for profit? How difficult would something like that be to prove?30 comments on this story
Of deeper concern is the potential costs of sports gambling on youths. Children and teens are more likely to get sucked into the gambling world if they are fed a steady diet of gambling ads while following their favorite sports matches, especially as many ads and websites resemble video games.
Not long ago, most state constitutions prohibited gambling. It was understood to be a vice, an activity that squandered money and destroyed lives. Now those arguments get drowned out by self-righteous shouts about personal liberty.
Utahns have stood firm against such illogic. Now it is clear that public education efforts may be the only defense against a wave that is increasingly difficult to stem.