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The dark underbelly of sports betting

The NFL and the gambling industry rake in billions pushing an addictive practice


FanDuel, DraftKings, and other online gambling apps Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu

The dark underbelly of sports betting
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Recently Saturday Night Live featured a sketch spoofing the explosion of sports betting. It not-so-subtly punctured the false promises of the gambling industry:

The satisfaction of placing a bet and watching it hit big. The exhilaration of an upset only you saw coming. With betting apps right on your phone, it's easier than ever to turn your passion for sports into cold, hard cash. With so many games to bet on, you almost can't lose. But there’s a dark side. We all know a friend who struggles with online gambling. A friend who's on the verge of losing everything. His house, his family, his entire life.

Then, with dark humor, the sketch offers: “Now you can bet on exactly how he'll lose it all with Rock Bottom Kings.”

Rock bottom is not the promise the gambling industry typically features in their glitzy ads that promise instant riches and constant dopamine hits. But we shouldn’t be fooled: The casinos that brought in a record $11 billion in revenue off of live sports aren’t in this to make sports fans rich.

Today, you can hardly watch a game or listen to a sports podcast or even read an article without being subject to sports betting ads. The ads almost always promise innocent fun, the ability to take your sports fandom to the next level by betting money on virtually all aspects of a sporting event. Even conversations about who will be the first pick in the NFL draft or who will win awards such as NBA MVP are framed by the odds, as if the voters are mechanically tied to the bookies in Vegas. The game announcers cheerily champion the various apps, easily downloadable on smart phones. Athletes, retired or active, endorse gambling companies. Entire blocks of programming are dedicated to sports betting. All, of course, with mumbled references to websites that help with gambling addictions.

Christians who oppose gambling will always come across as curmudgeons, perhaps even among their fellow believers. What is championed as innocent fun is always unwise. Proverbs 13:11 warns that “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.” This kind of get-rich-quick scheme is transitory. “When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven (Proverbs 23:5).”

There might be less risk for the wealthy athletes and commentators who can set aside a healthy sum to wager on games than for the many working-class men who, hooked by the adrenalin of sports betting, will waste their family’s mortgage payments on a playoff game.

According to the Mayo Clinic, gambling is highly addictive, stimulating “ the brain's reward system much like drugs or alcohol can, leading to addiction.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, gambling is highly addictive, stimulating “ the brain's reward system much like drugs or alcohol can, leading to addiction.” According to one study by Auburn University, the social impact of gambling is devastating:

Problems with gambling can lead to bankruptcy, crime, domestic abuse, and even suicide. A single bankruptcy could potentially impact 17 people. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that gambling addictions cost the U.S. $6.7 billion annually, and some experts believe that cost could be even higher.

One only has to talk to pastors, school administrators, social workers, and first responders in a casino town. They see up close the broken families, abandoned children, and deaths of despair brought about by this widely celebrated vice. And we should be alarmed because a young man no longer must get in his car and drive to a casino or book a flight to Las Vegas to lose his money. He can download an app and with a few clicks, begin a descent into darkness.

State after state have legalized sports gambling, wooed by the burgeoning revenue that politicians say can help fund things like education. But future education for present despair is a bad bet. It’s especially pernicious and predatory when combined with sports. Sports fandom is shared by a wide cross-section of Americans, including many young and impressionable children. Championing easy access to gambling will hook many into a lifetime of despair.

As an avid sports fan, I agree with longtime NFL writer Peter King, who says, “In 10 years, we’ll have thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, in our society either broke or hopelessly addicted to making a bet. And the NFL is watching it happen and raking in the millions.” One wonders if gambling will face the same reckoning as the tobacco industry, for their predatory ads toward children.

In the meantime, faithful Christians would be wise to avoid sports gambling and enjoy competition for what it was meant to be: an appreciation of God-given giftedness and the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. Teach your young boys to root on their favorite sports teams without reaching for their digital wallets. Because, to quote Saturday Night Live: “They say the house always wins. Well, now you're the house, and your friend is probably going to lose his.”


Daniel Darling

Daniel is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words, and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Angela, have four children.


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