What just happened?
The American Gaming Association forecasts one in five American adults will place a bet on this weekend’s Super Bowl game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. A record 50.4 million American adults plan to bet, wagering a total of $16 billion. This estimate includes legal bets, those placed with illegal bookies, and those casually made among friends or relatives.
The total amount expected to be wagered this year is more than double the amount from last year, notes the Associated Press.
What is sports betting?
Technically, sports betting refers to any wager between two or more people made on the outcome of a sports event. But in the last decade, the term has primarily referred to the facilitation of sports wagers through corporations known as sportsbooks.
Prior to 2018, the only state in the U.S. where a person could legally wager on the results of a sporting event was Nevada. For most Americans, sports betting was limited to wagers between individuals or to bets placed illegally with a bookie (bookmaker). But the Supreme Court ruled in the 2018 case Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association that a federal ban on sports betting was unconstitutional.
Commercial gambling remains illegal unless granted a special exemption by state governments. But as the moral opposition to gambling has decreased, states have increasingly been willing to grant such exemptions. Since that Supreme Court decision in 2018, almost every state legislature has legalized sports betting or introduced a bill to do so. Advertising for sportsbooks such as Caesars, DraftKings, and FanDuel has also increased exponentially in states that allow sports betting.
In 2021, U.S. sportsbooks (excluding tribal-run companies) generated $4.29 billion in combined revenue.
Which states have legalized sports betting?
The states that have legalized sports betting are Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Washington, DC, has also made it legal.
North Carolina has limited sports betting via tribal casinos. In New Mexico and Wisconsin, some tribes now offer sports betting under an existing Class III gaming compact. Mississippi allows sports betting but only onsite at licensed casinos.
Maine, Nebraska, and Massachusetts have passed bills to legalize sports betting and new laws may take effect by the end of the year.
What is the concern with sports betting?
A frequent concern expressed about sports betting is that it encourages predatory gambling and leads to increases in problem gambling.
Predatory gambling is the practice of using gambling to prey on human weakness for profit. It differs from social gambling in that it leads to higher rates of addiction and gambling losses, promotes organized crime, and promotes vices that are sanctioned and protected by the state (such as abuse of alcohol or marijuana).
The legalization of predatory gambling leads to increases in problem gambling within the population. Problem gambling, or compulsive gambling, is the overwhelming urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life.
For instance, the casino industry, a major source of predatory gambling within the US, attracts a disproportionate share of low-income workers, retirees, minorities, and people with disabilities. The poor are often the targets of predatory gambling in all forms—and the most susceptible to it.
According to a study from the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions, the poorer the neighborhood, the higher the risk for problem gambling. In areas with the highest “neighborhood disadvantage”—as determined by census factors such as the percentage of people who were unemployed, received public assistance, and/or live in poverty—more than 11 percent were problem gamblers, compared to just 5 percent in neighborhoods ranking in the top fifth of economic advantage
A study of members of Gamblers Anonymous found upwards of 26 percent have gambling-related divorces or separations. A study on the spread of casino gambling in 300 Metropolitan Statistical Areas found the presence of a casino reduces voluntarism, civic participation, family stability, and other forms of social capital within 15 miles of a community where it’s located.
While most people don’t live near a casino, Americans increasingly have access to legalized sports betting—often on their smartphones. The result is more people are liable to develop habits of compulsive gambling. According to a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, “Sports betting, relative to non-sports betting, has been more strongly linked to gambling problems and cognitive distortions related to illusion of control, probability control and interpretive control.”
Another study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found sports betting may be more problematic than other forms of gambling because it provides the illusion of control. Those who wager on sports, according to the study, tend to believe they have some insights that give them an advantage. The result is they’re less likely to acknowledge and take responsibility for their gambling-related problems.
“It’s this ticking time bomb,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “We have to take action now, but the problem is almost impossible to quantify.”
How should Christians think about sports betting?
How Christians think about sports betting will be heavily shaped by how they feel about gambling in general. Those who oppose all gambling will reject this form too, while those who are open to gambling in general may support some or all forms of sports betting.
For example, theologian John Frame argues in The Doctrine of the Christian Life that while gambling is often wrong for Christians, it’s not always wrong. He acknowledges gambling can indeed lead to false worship, addiction, and covetousness, yet he contends it’s not inherently sinful and can be done in a nondestructive way.
In an article for The Gospel Coalition last fall, Darin White and Robert Brooks addressed the question “Should a Christian bet on sports?” They point out how sports-related gambling can lead us to “switch the order of God’s ownership and our stewardship.” Gambling is neither work nor investment but rather
commits God-given resources to an activity that has minimal benefits and involves a significant chance of loss. The bettor takes on risk for which he’s not likely to be compensated. Thus, sports betting isn’t a restorative or creative activity and doesn’t align with God’s provisional plan for humans.
Believers might also consider a wager on a game between friends to be harmless entertainment and a matter of Christian liberty, while still being concerned about the sports betting industry. We should also give serious consideration to whether, as a matter of public policy, legalizing sportsbooks leads to the flourishing of our neighbors. As with the lottery, many states are rushing to normalize sportsbooks because it provides additional forms of tax revenue. Such states tend to overlook the human suffering stemming from promoting and normalizing an addictive behavior that almost always involves a predatory gaming industry.
Ultimately, we must determine what level of gambling normalization we think is beneficial for ourselves and our society and respond accordingly. “As Spirit-filled Christians, we can navigate sports betting with wisdom—for some, it may be an addictive struggle to be avoided,” say White and Brooks. “For others, it may be an entertaining bridge builder. For all of us, it should be handled with wisdom and appropriate caution.”