In 1978, legalized casino gambling opened in Atlantic City, N.J., a daring change aimed at reviving the faded resort.
More than 40 years later, the place whose street names are featured on the Monopoly board game remains a struggling city marked by empty lots that were supposed to be filled with prosperity. The city rolled the dice but did not pass Go.
Now advocates for legalizing sports gambling are trotting out the same hollow reasons that persuaded states to legalize lotteries and casinos. The No. 1 reason is that the gambling is already happening illegally. Why not legalize it, regulate it and tap the money spent underground to generate tax revenue and create jobs?
That sounds reasonable, but it does not reflect what legalization really does. It’s not a matter of simply bringing illegal gamblers in from the shadows. Indeed, many of them are savvy enough to stick with illegal bets that offer better odds and no taxes.
What legalization actually does is create new gamblers, people who see the activity as publicly sanctioned and attractively advertised. No doubt there are far fewer people in North Carolina who played an illegal daily number than those who now play the N.C. Lottery’s daily numbers offered in three and four digits twice daily.
Legalized sports betting in North Carolina will follow the same scenario. It’s not about bringing a black market into the sunlight. It’s about creating a new market. And a more dangerous one.
Would-be gamblers need to travel to a casino. Lottery players place smaller and fixed bets. But sports betting will be accelerated by being available on smartphones, creating what’s billed as “a casino in your pocket.” Gamblers will have easier access than they do to a casino and they will spend more than they do on lotteries.
The expansion of sports betting using smartphones is particularly threatening to teens. They have been weaned on instant communication and video games. It is an easy transition to apply their digital fluency to betting on sports. North Carolina’s proposed sports betting law would bar anyone under 21 from becoming a registered player. Good luck with that. Minors also aren’t legally allowed to smoke, drink or use drugs.
Legalized sports betting is an obvious hazard for adults as well. Gambling can be addictive and expanding access to it expands the likelihood of addiction.
That’s not to say gambling isn’t a genuine form of recreation. Spending a few dollars on a lottery ticket is worth the pleasure of having a shot, however remote, at a windfall. A trip to a casino or a racetrack can be exciting and for some a test of skill, not just chance. But the opportunity to gamble legally shouldn’t be ubiquitous and the risk of excess shouldn’t be as easy as a few clicks on a smartphone.
Apart from its personal hazards, sports gambling is bad for sports. Given the expansion of sports gambling already in the U.S., this may be a belated concern, but it’s still a real one. More gambling on sporting events encourages point shaving and other manipulations of a game and its outcome.
Professional athletes making millions of dollars are unlikely to risk their careers to get paid for altering games, but what of unpaid college players without prospects of going pro? Or what of referees, coaches, trainers and others who have control over the game or inside knowledge about the status of players?
Beyond raising the risk of cheating, prolific betting denigrates the essence of sports. Athletic events should be about athletes winning, not spectators.
Finally, a government’s bet on sports gambling is a loser. Lotteries whose profits are dedicated to public schools or senior citizens produce revenues that tend to displace rather than increase existing public investment in those areas.
States should raise their revenue honestly and fairly. That means taking a share of people’s earnings, not their losses.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com