Sports gambling: Leave the money on the table

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court may loosen federal restrictions on sports gambling. As a result, many states have proactively drafted bills that would create regulated sports gambling industries at the state level—Minnesota included. 

The changes could greatly expand legal gambling in Minnesota, for example, by making online gambling accessible 24 hours-a-day from any computer or smart phone.

Proponents argue that legalized sports gambling would create a safer and more regulated environment for those who already gamble. But gambling expansion would also carve out space for an industry that preys on addictive personalities and irresponsible players—often those who can least afford to gamble. Others hope to bring in tax dollars by regulating the gambling industry. However, increased revenue streams in one area may lead to significant costs in other areas, such as court costs related to bankruptcies, and the need for increased safety net funding for people losing their livelihoods. The expansion of our state’s gambling laws could be disastrous for families and the common good.

A predatory industry

Sports gambling is inherently predatory.  Daily fantasy sports, for example, rely heavily on a large base of unskilled players who gamble (and lose) against experts or those who use algorithms and other tools to rig the outcomes. As reported in news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, for every skilled player, there must be many unskilled ones to compensate the winners and provide the profit margins—so sports betting companies must constantly lure in new players with the promise of big rewards.

Gambling companies also bank on the addictiveness of the game. The more players return—and lose—the better the industry does; it feeds on the destructive behavior of compulsive gamblers. Choices and habits that destroy lives and tear families apart are also precisely the behaviors that line the gambling industry’s pockets the most.

Professional sports leagues, too, are eyeing gambling expansion to increase their revenues and to keep increasingly bored and distracted fans entertained. In transformed stadiums more closely resembling racetracks or casinos, fans could bet on practically anything at any point throughout the game—whether Tom Brady will score a touchdown in the third quarter, or how many strikeouts Santana will throw against Cleveland, for example. Obviously, this could easily become an addictive and troublesome social phenomenon.

About more than the bottom line

As mentioned above, a popular argument in favor of legalized sports gambling is that it will bring in more revenue for the state. Yet this ignores the hidden cost associated with legalized gambling: erosion of trust and financial stability within families; an increase in divorce and family fragmentation; crippling unpaid debts; check fraud, embezzlement and other forms of economic theft committed by problem gamblers. Gambling also increases criminal justice costs related to problem gamblers who commit crimes to finance their habit and debts.

All told, we can expect a government cost of three dollars in social welfare spending for every dollar that gambling generates, according to the 2008 U.S. International Gambling Report Series. Those who say legal gambling will boost our state’s economy are only looking at part of the picture.

Increased revenues will always be a strong incentive to consider new policies, but it is an incentive that must be kept in check. Let’s remember that the state exists for the good of the people in it—not the other way around. Enabling predatory business practices and destructive habits just so that the state can make a buck is a clear sign of skewed priorities.

A dangerous cultural shift

This isn’t bingo in your church basement, pulltabs at the bar, a March Madness bracket, or the school raffle. As Catholics we recognize that these forms of gambling can be a legitimate form of entertainment, not inherently problematic or contrary to justice.

Problems do arise, though, when gambling deprives people of what is due to them or to those under their care (CCC 2413)—when, for example, players bet away their life savings or amass unmanageable debt to finance a gambling habit. Or when an entire industry revolves around them doing so.

This is about more than revenue, and it’s certainly about more than sanctioning a harmless pastime. We’re talking about a major cultural shift with the potential to feed destructive cycles of greed and addiction. The potential for serious harm to Minnesotans and their families makes gambling expansion an unacceptable option.

The gambling industry is motivated by greed and propped up by addiction, both evils that seriously tarnish the dignity proper to human persons. When it comes to gambling expansion, the hidden, human costs are much higher than the economic benefit.

Sarah Spangenberg is Communications Associate for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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