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An education into gambling addiction?

Universities are making deals with sports-betting companies, and students will be the losers

An education into gambling addiction?
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Gambling on sports is nothing new. Two middle school boys bet their weekly allowance on who will win the big game. A weekend foursome places a friendly wager on who can hit the longest drive. Coworkers in the department have an office pool for the championship series.

But now there is a new dynamic. The game’s odds are updated each time a team scores, while a digital ad for the sports-betting company scrolls across the bottom of the screen. Then comes the commercial break, including the clever one by the same sports-betting company. The latter might even sponsor the game or various events adjacent to the game.

Both Scripture and common sense remind us that gambling is often foolish, regardless of the form it takes, for it is risking the likely loss of monetary resources for the unlikely chance at easy riches. Gambling is also often sinful, rooted in covetousness (Exodus 20:17) and a disordered love of money (1 Timothy 6:9-10). It is tragically common for habitual gamblers to become addicted to the practice, looking for the next endorphin rush that accompanies a winning bet. Far too many lives become ensnared by gambling, which can lead to a whole host of negative consequences. Countless families have been put at risk—or worse—by a parent’s compulsive gambling.

Gambling may be risky business for those placing the bets, but it is also a lucrative industry that makes billions of dollars off of the foolishness of its customer base. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that made gambling on sports illegal. It was no longer necessary to fly to Las Vegas or contact an illegal bookie to place a bet. The internet made it possible to bet on any sport, at any time, from any place. A potential windfall would now seem just a few clicks away. The decision understandably elated the gambling industry.

But gambling on sports isn’t necessarily just innocent fun. Recently, the New York Times published an important expose on the growing relationship between sports-betting companies and intercollegiate athletics. A number of universities have established formal partnerships with local casinos or larger corporations, notably Caesars Sportsbook. As a condition of these partnerships, the schools allow the corporate partners to promote sports-betting among students, alumni, and fans. As always, the house has the edge, profiting from risks of others. But in this case, the university also gets a substantial cut, generating revenue for the school.

Companies promise various betting-related benefits to students who use gambling apps, not unlike the drug dealer who offers the first hit for free.

Universities stand to gain much from the “Caesarization” of their athletic programs, but their students will be the losers. American higher education is a struggling sector. Many schools never fully recovered from budget cuts made during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, even before having to make further cuts because of the pandemic. Demographic shifts have led to a generational decline of college-aged students that is projected to last into at least the mid-2030s. It should thus come as no surprise that universities are betting on the ongoing profitability of strategic partnerships with sports-betting companies.

But at what cost? As the Times article makes clear, sports-betting partnerships present a number of dangers, especially to students. University-wide emails or app alerts encourage collegians to place bets—even students who are under 21, the legal gambling age. Companies promise various betting-related benefits to students who use gambling apps, not unlike the drug dealer who offers the first hit for free. Universities allow Caesars SportsBook to set up shop in tailgating spaces and receive public call-outs during games.

The upshot is that students render unto Caesars to the detriment of their own wellbeing. Some collegians who have already taken out thousands of dollars in student debt gamble their way into greater indebtedness. Others who work part-time or even full-time to pay for school squander their earnings in the hope of an easy payday. Far too many will become addicted to gambling. Universities that are already struggling to meet the mental health needs of students will be ill-equipped to deal with the fallout.

There is a great need for honest talk about what is really happening with collegiate sports-betting partnerships. Academic institutions are colluding with a predatory industry to encourage students, who often have limited financial means, to unwisely gamble their money.

Gambling on sports may be legal, but universities fail their students (and other constituents) when they align with sports-betting companies for a cut of the profits. Schools would better serve their students by dedicating resources to educating collegians about the dangers of gambling, especially in an age where sports-betting is so accessible. But this would take an act of moral imagination that is impossible for academic institutions that care more about generating revenue and enhancing their athletic brand than they do educating their students.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

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