Opinion | Legalized sports betting is a horrible idea

By Ethan Tessler, Staff Columnist

We all love a game of risk. The lack of control and uncertainty of the outcome seduces many of us into playing its game. For some, all it takes is one wager and they can’t seem to stop.

Unfortunately, this experience is far too common today, especially with the booming sports-betting industry. An anonymous account on gamblingtherapy.org details an account of someone affected by sports betting.

“Stopped going to local casino 15+ years ago. I self-[banned] myself without anyone pushing me. I go to Vegas once a year and gamble like a madman while there, but get on a plane and it’s done and out of my system … Now someone introduces me to sports gambling 4 years ago, and I am addicted and can’t stop … Can’t stop betting and what ever bet I do, I lose 60% of the time.”

Despite horror stories such as this one, sports betting is heading into a period of normalization since the Supreme Court lifted the federal ban — it has been legalized in 20 states plus Washington, D.C., and is pending legalization in many others. Though mobile sports betting only launched in May of 2019, Pennsylvania alone has raked in $1.5 billion in wagers — the third-largest amount in the country. While there are some positives to full legalization in all 50 states, including job creation and billions of dollars in state revenue, it would be immoral and dangerous to do so. The full legalization of sports betting will prey on individuals susceptible to the adrenaline rush and fast money associated with the act.

The reality is that oddsmakers in Vegas use several kinds of algorithms, forecasting and seemingly mystical powers that ensure bettors will not gain an advantage over the oddsmakers. Sure, you’ll win here and there, but it’s not sustainable over long periods of time.

Decisions — good or bad — become habits when repeated enough and, in certain cases, addictions arise from these habits. A plethora of reasons can cause addiction to sports gambling such as easy access, personal stress, financial reasons and many more. One reason that often goes under the radar is that some individuals are prone to addictive behaviors. A 2013 Neuroscience Journal from the National Institute of Health found that certain individuals are born with less norepinephrine, meaning that they don’t get the same enjoyment out of natural pleasures that others do. As a result, many individuals with this chemical imbalance are drawn to gambling as a way to achieve that balance.

“These results suggest that pathological gamblers may have a functional disturbance of the noradrenergic system. This system has been postulated to underlie sensation-seeking behaviors, aspects of which are thought to be abnormal among pathological gamblers,” say Laurie Roehrich and doctors Alec Roy and Bryon Adinoff.

Even if studies like this did not come up when the Supreme Court justices were contemplating whether or not to lift the federal ban on sports betting — which I highly doubt given the nature of their profession — the consequences of their decision will truly be catastrophic. Not just for gambling addicts, but for individuals who will become addicted because of their chemical imbalance — let alone the people who will get addicted for countless other reasons.

I have personally witnessed many individuals struggle with sports betting — most of them male college students, some of them friends. Most of these accounts consist of the bettors’ futile attempts at trying to win back money they lost. Oftentimes losing any sum of money will cause these bettors to spiral out of control. I vividly recall a friend wagering a significant amount of money on a Russian basketball team. He knew nothing about the league or the team itself. When I asked him why he made such a thoughtless decision, his answer was simple — “I need to beat the bookie.”

These individuals were betting illegally I can only imagine the gambling horror stories that could emerge if sports betting is legalized around the United States. Arnie Wexler, a former executive director of the Council for Compulsive Gambling, predicts a stark rise in gambling addiction because of the Supreme Court decision to lift the federal ban on sports betting.

Wexler is a former gambler himself and is deeply saddened by the Supreme Court ruling. He recalls a Gallup survey in 1986 surrounding the new legalization of the state lottery. Prior to its legalization, just 31% of people played illegal numbers. Once it was legalized, the poll found that a monstrous 81% of people played the state-run lottery.

The same scenario is happening today. The Supreme Court has essentially removed the stigma surrounding sports betting. And now, with countless apps and websites made easily accessible, individuals will not even have to leave their couch to make bets. People can simply be watching a sporting event, think to themselves that a certain team will win, grab their computer and bet on said team to win.

“What the Supreme Court has done is to facilitate expanding gambling basically to everybody’s desktop,” said Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University law professor who runs the Public Health Advocacy Institute.

Ease of access and the removed stigma will surely lead to a sports-betting epidemic — let alone the fact that these sports betting websites are marketing their product during sports games. Marlene Warner, the president of the National Council on Problem Gambling’s board of directors, agrees with this and is calling for regulators and sports leagues to use their newly increased profits to help fight the problem.

“The expansion of legalized sports gambling in the United States will likely increase gambling participation and gambling problems unless steps are taken to minimize harm,” Warner said.
If the federal ban remained in place, things would likely be different. However, the damage has already been done. While it is highly unlikely that legislators will come to their senses and reverse the full legalization of sports betting, it is imperative that they do so because of the addiction epidemic that it will cause.