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Rueter’s Digest: Sports gambling should be legal everywhere with age and bet restrictions

Photo+by+Sarina+Lincoln.+
Photo by Sarina Lincoln.
Photo by Sarina Lincoln.

By Sam Rueter
ruetersa@grinnell.edu

While nothing is concrete, it appears likely that sports betting will soon be legal in many states across the U.S., which begs the question of whether these developments are good or bad for fans and athletes alike.

In May of 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of New Jersey, overturning a 1992 federal ban on sports gambling. Since this landmark decision, Nevada, New Jersey and Rhode Island have declared sports gambling legal, and a collection of others are preparing to vote on the issue.

Although legal and highly-concentrated in specific parts of the US in the 70s, sports gambling never really found a home in the American sports landscape, and thus the 1992 federal decision banning states from legalizing it didn’t cause too much fuss.

However, though sports betting has been illegal for much of the last quarter-century, that hasn’t stopped gamblers from heading to sportsbooks in Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana (all of which were grandfathered in and therefore unaffected by the 1992 decision), or from utilizing illegal online companies and agencies to place bets. 

The seedy and corrupt nature of these online websites and individual bookies propels much of the opposition to sports gambling and that it further supports deviant and destructive behavior. Thus, the opposition are given a kind of self-righteous overtone — sports gambling must remain illegal to protect people from themselves.

But this argument to me doesn’t seem to hold much weight. There is already a plethora of potentially-destructive behaviors protected by law (alcohol consumption, marijuana usage, etc.) and the notion of gambling on sports already exists — it is called fantasy sports. Though money isn’t always at stake in these leagues, the act of drafting, accumulating and strategically utilizing players fits the legal definition of gambling. While past performance surely informs who fantasy players take and play, performance, especially in football where injuries happen all the time, is really up to chance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I believe those in favor of expanded sports gambling across the U.S. base their thinking on two primary notions.

First, if sports gambling is legal, it means that states can regulate it, police it and maybe most importantly tax it. Sports gambling could support state infrastructure efforts much in the same way that local businesses do, while also maintaining the necessary protections in place to prevent participants from going into too much debt or being victimized by shady and corrupt bookies. This is the primary reason why major professional sports organizations like the NBA have started to change their tune on sports gambling — they figure that with the proper regulations in place, they stand to make a small fortune.

The second and, as far as I am concerned, more interesting reason to legalize sports gambling is so that it can add a new dimension to the fan experience.

To leagues like the NFL and the WNBA, who are struggling with an image problem and low viewership numbers respectively, legal sports betting would be a godsend. If apathetic or morally-conflicted fans had a financial stake in the outcome of a game they wouldn’t usually watch, they are more likely to turn on the TV or head to an arena. Some leagues are even considering the addition of in-game live betting, which promises to be an interactive experience that takes fans closer to the action than ever before (at least as far as their wallets are concerned).

For athletes, however, legalized gambling is a little more complicated. It could be a conflict of interest to have athletes betting on the sports they participate in, but there should be no reason why an NBA star shouldn’t be able to place a bet on an NFL game.

While there may be some danger of increased fan vitriol or violence towards athletes (“hey, your performance cost me X amount of money today”), the revenue generated by sports gambling will eventually find its way back, at least in part, to these very same athletes’ pockets.

The bottom line is that sports gambling should be legal; however, restrictions must be put in place to ensure the safety of participants. Age restrictions akin to drinking and smoking should exist and bet restrictions should be implemented to ensure that gamblers cannot risk sizeable portions of their income that could have potentially debilitating effects for them or their families should they lose.

While gambling itself may seem grimy, universal legalization could serve to destigmatize it and its practitioners. Not only could this bring an entire underworld of gamblers and bookies out of the shadows and into a world of regulation and oversight, but it could also make all sports more enjoyable.

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