Legalizing sports wagers: Entertainment or Enslavement? You can bet it’s not worth the risk to lives and livelihoods.

Legalizing sports betting, already a prominent topic of legislative discussion, has been pushed to the front of the 2022 session chatter, with both Republicans and Democrats signaling their support, and Representative Zack Stephenson’s (DFL-Champlin) announcement that he would lead a bill in 2022 to legalize sports betting. His decision matters because he can give the bill momentum as the Chair of the House Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over gambling and gaming laws.

The Catholic Church does not strictly prohibit Catholics from participating in games of chance.  But modern sports gambling, particularly when available through one’s smart phone, is like an addictive drug that has and will harm lives, families, and the common good. We must make a commonsense distinction between low stakes fund-raising events sponsored by charitable organizations, and the normalization of a vice industry whose revenues depend upon those who are (or will become) problem gamblers.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2413) warns that “the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement,” and that wagers “become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others.” The allure of quick, easy, big money through sports wagering will be a trap for people searching for a way out of an already precarious financial position.

Gambling addiction causes severe financial, emotional, and even physical problems for the gambler and their family. Coping with the negative consequences of gambling can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of shame and hopelessness. The National Council on Problem Gambling reports that about 20 percent of those diagnosed with disordered gambling attempt suicide – a higher percentage than any other addictive disorder.

Do we really want to risk having one more form of so-called “entertainment” when the odds are so clear that it can destroy livelihoods and even end lives? That sure doesn’t sound like fun.

How did we get here?

In 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a federal law that banned sports gambling everywhere outside of Nevada. Since then, several states have expanded gambling laws to permit betting on sporting events. Senator Karla Bigham (DFL-Cottage Grove) and Representative Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) introduced a bill during the 2021 legislative session to legalize on-site and mobile betting but only in and around tribal casinos. Their bill did not receive a hearing.

The legalization of sports betting would be the biggest change in Minnesota gaming since compacts were signed with Minnesota’s Native American tribes in 1991. Governor Tim Walz has said he would sign a sports betting bill only if it has been agreed to by the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. Tribal communities have opposed previous attempts to bring sports gambling to Minnesota, but their stance may be changing. Now, Chair Stephenson says he will hold informational hearings and consult with the state’s Native American tribes before introducing a formal bill.

Where do we go from here?

We should not unleash this addictive and destructive activity on our people so that a privileged few can have more excitement during the increasingly boring spectacles offered by the professional sports leagues.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference will be working closely with stakeholders, such as the Minnesota Alliance on Problem Gambling, to ensure that, to the extent possible, families, the poor, and the vulnerable are held harmless by this latest effort to expand gambling. Urge your legislators to commission a study on the current prevalence of problem gambling in Minnesota and ensure any gambling expansion makes available the proper resources for prevention and treatment of problem gambling.

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