Taking a Gamble on Legalized Sports Betting
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has paved the way for expanded sports gambling, but Catholic analysts urge caution.
WASHINGTON — Sports fans in some states may soon be able to place bets during a game if their favorite baseball team will score two runs in an inning, or if their college football quarterback will throw three touchdowns before halftime.
On May 14, the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for expanded sports gambling by nullifying a federal law that had banned state sports betting with some exceptions. The court ruled 6-3 that the 1992 law violated constitutional principles limiting the federal government from controlling state policy.
The court’s decision could have major repercussions for not only the integrity of athletics at the college and professional levels, but could have serious consequences for society, with more people falling into gambling addiction, Catholic ethicists and public-policy advocates warn.
“What we’re doing is opening up a can of worms over a pandora’s box,” said David Cloutier, a moral theology professor at The Catholic University of America.
Cloutier, the author of The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age, told the Register that expanded legal sports gambling will become “a huge business” with major incentives for the manipulation of athletic contests.
“I don’t honestly know if professional or college sports can ever be the same when there is widespread legalized betting, as opposed to the March Madness pools that we all do with our friends,” Cloutier said.
In Minnesota, the state’s Catholic bishops for a couple of years have been warning about some state legislators’ interest in passing a sports-gambling bill to generate economic activity and tax revenue.
“We need to be concerned about the impact that gambling expansion will have on persons and families,” said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, who told the Register that gambling addiction undermines families and harms the greater society.
“We’re not talking about gambling as bingo, your friend’s fantasy league or your NCAA tournament bracket,” Adkins said. “We’re talking about highly addictive gambling at your fingertips, through your phone.”
The Legal Context
Passed in 1992, the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act made it unlawful for a state to “sponsor, operate, advertise, promote, license or authorize by law” sports wagering. Nevada was exempted from the law, while Montana, Delaware and Oregon were allowed to continue sports lotteries that they had already enacted.
Congress passed the law out of concern that sports gambling could change sports from entertainment to an unseemly vehicle for gambling. In 2014, New Jersey tried to pass a new law repealing some prohibitions on sports wagering, leading the National Collegiate Athletic Association and several professional sports leagues to challenge the state’s law.
The leagues won in federal court, but New Jersey, led by former Gov. Chris Christie, fought the case to the Supreme Court. Joined by 18 other states, and the governors of three others, New Jersey prevailed in convincing the high court that the case was a states’ rights issue.
“The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own.”
Several North American professional sports leagues — including the NFL, the NBA and MLB — released statements where they vowed to protect the integrity of their games while calling for a regulatory framework.
The NCAA said in a prepared statement that while it was reviewing the court’s decision to understand its overall implications to college sports, the NCAA would adjust its sports wagering and championship policies to align with the decision.
Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame, told the Register in a prepared statement that as “various parties consider implications of the Supreme Court decision, we urge all to recognize that in intercollegiate sports the athletes are first of all students, and everything should be done to preserve the integrity of the competition and promote the well-being of the student-athletes who compete."
Sports leagues have long been wary of legalized betting, primarily because of concerns that it could increase the likelihood of their athletes seeking to influence the outcome of games by deliberating trying to lose games, or tailor their final outcomes to profit from betting lines set by bookmakers.
Such concerns are not speculative, as there have been numerous U.S. sports-betting scandals. Some of the most famous have involved Catholic colleges, including a 1978 scandal involving members of Boston College’s basketball team. That incident subsequently resulted in the criminal conviction of one of the team’s players as well as three professional gamblers and a New York mobster, as a result of testimony provided by gangster-turned-FBI informant Henry Hill, the protagonist of the movie Goodfellas.
Boston College was also the flashpoint for another incident in 1996, involving 13 members of its football team who were found to have placed bets on various teams, including two players accused of betting against their own team to lose a game. Although prosecutors said there was no evidence any of the players actually tried to lose games or otherwise influence the final score in order to win their bets, all 13 players were suspended for their actions.
Earlier, there was substantial Catholic college involvement in a pair of notorious “point-shaving” college basketball scandals in the 1950s and the 1960s. And more recently, in 2011, the University of San Diego basketball team was tarnished by a betting scandal that resulted in a six-month jail sentence for its star player.
The court may have removed a major hurdle to expanded gambling, but residents in most states will not see expanded sports wagering for at least another year, as bills work their way through legislatures.
In addition to some states like New Jersey, which have a few mechanisms already in place, other states such as California, New York, Illinois and Missouri have sports-betting bills pending in their legislatures.
Several Catholic state conferences that were contacted by the Register declined to comment because the sports-gambling bills in their states do not appear to be major priorities anytime soon for their respective state legislatures. Most of the conferences referred the Register to previous statements where they had come out against proposals to expand casino gambling.
“The bishops in Massachusetts have been concerned about expanded gaming because of the risks that it places on breaking families apart and people getting addicted, with the addiction driving them to gamble more to try to make up what they lost. The house always wins, as they say in gambling. The odds are always stacked against the gambler,” said James Driscoll, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
Driscoll told the Register that he does not expect the Massachusetts Legislature to act on a pending sports-gambling bill this year. Driscoll added that the bishops in the Bay State will likely weigh in on the sports-gambling debate “when it bubbles to the top.”
Said Driscoll, “It’s going to be interesting to see how this develops across the country.”
Anyone who has ever attended a bingo game at a parish hall — or who has gone on a parish trip to a casino — knows that the Catholic Church does not outright condemn gambling.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, games of chance are “not in themselves contrary to justice” (2413). However, the Catechism teaches that gambling is morally unacceptable when it deprives someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The risk of gambling “becoming an enslavement” makes wagering a grave matter for those prone to addiction.
“From a Catholic perspective, the Church assumes that gambling is a small enterprise to be undertaken among friends, like parish bingo, aimed at supporting charitable enterprises,” said CUA’s Cloutier, who added that large-scale, for-profit gambling is “much more problematic.”
“It’s absolutely true that the Catholic Tradition doesn’t forbid gambling, but it clearly does not mean that anything goes,” said Cloutier, a lifelong baseball fan who grew up in Chicago rooting for the Cubs. He said creating a “culture of gambling” will foster greed, lead more people into addiction and change the very nature of sports.
“Sports will become very much about me making money, and we all know how people are about money,” Cloutier said. “They’re going to react differently about losing $20 at a baseball game than they would if they were just rooting for their team.”
Michael Galligan-Stierle, the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, who has spoken and written about the role that sports can have on character development, told the Register that anything, even athletics, can be corrupted.
“It can be alluring to go off the track of doing the right thing as the stakes rise,” Galligan-Stierle said. “That will always be at work in anything that the human person does, and sports is no different.”
Adkins, from the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said most people do not yet understand how “transformative” expanded legal gambling could be for major collegiate and professional sports.
“The idea of having gambling at your fingertips, constantly on your phone — its implications are breathtaking,” Adkins said. “We need to deeply consider what this will mean in terms of creating an opportunity for people to become addicted and nurture those addictions through their cellphones.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.