Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
Content warning for discussion of addiction and a mention of death by suicide.
One thing draws people to sports betting and sports, period: winning. When the team or athlete you’re rooting for wins, you feel a little bit of that win yourself. You picked right. Those other people picked wrong. Your instincts are better, you’re smarter, and your fandom is more pure and just than the other guys’, in a way that is completely concrete. The highs and lows of fandom are a little bit addictive, like most fun things, and betting on a game or match-up just juices those feelings — raises the stakes, literally and figuratively. The highs can be higher, but the lows are always far lower.
It’s easy to understand why people do it — easier, for me, than understanding how people walk into casinos and put down thousands of dollars on roulette and blackjack that the odds tell them they will never see again. Sports offer more variables, more information. As someone who knows a bit about sports, I have been seduced by the idea that I know more than the bookies. That I could beat the system, and my time spent learning the game could pay off. It’s never gone particularly well, but I’ve also never bet very much. I’m more scared of losing than I am confident in that knowledge.
I know people who really enjoy it, though. Who feel comfortable, who believe that any loss can be compensated for with the next bet and that the added thrill is worth the price of admission — even without profit. They’ve also been far closer to the edge, chasing and chasing until they wake up hundreds or thousands of dollars into a hole they may or may not be able to afford.
As sports gambling becomes more accessible than it’s ever been before thanks to widespread legalization that extends to online betting, these are the situations it’s hard for me to stop thinking about. Anecdotally, sports betting is both more addictive and more socially and culturally accepted than cannabis use — yet its legalization is happening both more rapidly and with far fewer restrictions. Massive corporations, not people, are the ones profiting off of the end of this particular prohibition, as evidenced by the inescapable FanDuel and DraftKings advertising. Sports media is particularly culpable, as virtually every corner of the famously unstable industry is now on the payroll of one of those two companies and has a flood of gambling-centric content to prove it. Sportsbooks are even entering stadiums and arenas, essentially toppling one of the biggest taboos in sports.
On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense. Like most prohibitionary laws, the United States’ longstanding ban on sports gambling outside of Nevada — which the Supreme Court overturned in 2018 — was arbitrary. Conceptually, I am on board with people being allowed to pursue whatever vices they enjoy and simply pay taxes for them. Cannabis is a perfect example (aside: free all political prisoners from the War on Drugs), a substance that is minimally addictive, often medicinal and was only illegal because of decades of racist mythology.
Yet the current free for all within sports gambling is still discomfiting. Yes, people were gambling on sports when it was illegal. More people are doing it now, and even more will start doing it as huge states like New York and Florida open their doors to bettors. The ways that people are allowed to gamble now — online, in private, with a credit card and immediate gratification — make the risk of problem gambling considerably higher, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. Combine that information with the fact that according to their research, the rate of gambling problems among sports gamblers is at least twice as high as it is among gamblers in general, and you’re looking at a striking degree of risk — one that has mostly been obscured by the happy chatter around lines and parlays and fantasy teams.
We just can’t say how severe the consequences will be yet — how much strain will be put on an already tenuous public health system by those seeking treatment, how many families will face dire financial consequences, how many people will attempt or die by suicide because they’re too deep in a hole and feel like they have no way out. What we do know is right now there are next to no rules to prevent other people from profiting a lot off of that pain. Those people, not us, are the ones who wind up winning. They already are.