Faith leaders in a few states hold out hope of stopping online sports betting

On Sunday, millions of Americans will gather with friends to eat snacks, laugh at the latest TV commercials and watch a little football as the Kansas City Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII.

Quite a few place bets, often via their mobile phones.

According to online gaming industry news site Legal Sports Report, Americans are expected to bet $1.3 billion on the big game thanks to the explosive growth of legalized sports gambling, which has expanded to nearly 40 states.

But not to Alabama or Texas, which are among the holdouts and where faith leaders in particular have worked to keep legal sports betting out.

Opponent

For Greg Davis, a Baptist pastor and president of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, that meant opposing any change to the state constitution that would ban lotteries and most forms of gambling. Davis said he knows people bet on sports informally in Alabama.

Greg Davis speaks to the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. (Photo courtesy of Doug Rogers)

However, these stakes are relatively small stakes compared to industrial-strength sports betting, he said. Davis said he and other faith leaders in Alabama believe sports gambling is harmful and addictive. They reject the idea that the state profits from the gambling losses of Alabama citizens.

“We don’t believe the state government should do business with corporate gaming to exploit its own people,” he said.

Some of the country’s largest faith communities have long viewed gambling as immoral or a “threat to society,” as the United Methodist Church’s social principles put it. But faith leaders like Davis are likely fighting an uphill battle, said Richard McGowan, a longtime Boston College professor and Jesuit priest.

McGowan, nicknamed the “Father of Odds” for his research on gambling, said faith leaders were caught off guard by how quickly legalized sports gambling became commonplace.

After New Hampshire introduced the first state lottery in 1964, it took almost 60 years for 40 other states to follow suit. It took five years for legalized sports betting to become so popular – after the Supreme Court struck down a federal law in 1992 that limited legal sports betting to Nevada.

Instead of having to fly to Las Vegas to place a legal bet, people in most states can pull out their cell phones and use a popular app like Fan Duel or Caesar Sportsbook to place bets on the outcome of games and just about anything else happens in a game.

“Ethic of Tolerance”

The ease of legalizing betting coincided with what McGowan called “the ethics of tolerance.”

“The ethical theory that a lot of people hold is that you should do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone,” he said. That makes it difficult to argue against activities like gambling, which many people view as harmless entertainment but can have harmful side effects when people become addicted.

The states that have legalized gambling also viewed gambling as a painless source of income that would then be used for popular social causes such as funding college scholarships. This also makes it difficult to ask ethical questions about gambling.

“People have been doing this illegally for many years, and now the government is basically saying, OK, it’s OK to make it legal and we’ll make a lot of money along the way,” McGowan said.

Sports betting also has an added benefit, according to McGowan, as it allows people to combine two things they enjoy doing – gambling and cheering on their teams.

“When they bet,” he said, “people think they are supporting the team they are betting on.”

permit

Public approval of gambling has steadily increased over the past few decades. In 2009, Gallup, which has been measuring public opinion on gambling and other moral issues since 2003, found that 58% of Americans said gambling was morally acceptable. In 2023, 70% of respondents said gambling was moral.

Legal sports gambling has become a lucrative business, according to a recent report from the American Gaming Association. Commercial sports betting operators generated $9.2 billion in revenue from January to November 2023 with over $106 billion in bets.

The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said faith leaders who raise questions about the downsides of legalized gambling may feel like they face overwhelming odds. She fears that sports leagues are becoming too attuned to the gambling industry.

“Not only did the sports leagues not fight back, they turned around and said, ‘Scratch my stomach,'” she said.

Still, she said faith groups that disagree on all sorts of other issues could find common ground by raising concerns about the ubiquity of sports gambling. And they can still have a voice, she said.

For example, the state of Massachusetts is considering allowing bars to install sports betting kiosks, and faith leaders like Everett have been asked to provide public feedback on their concerns.

She fears the human cost of expanding gambling is too high.

“Every time you expand gambling, the lives of a part of the population are destroyed,” she said.

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that about 2 million Americans – or 1% of the population – have a severe gambling problem, with between 4 and 6 million having moderate or mild gambling problems.

Damage

John Litzler, public policy director for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said people with gambling addictions often show up at the doors of churches or other faith communities when their lives are unraveling.

The Texas Baptists oppose the legalization of sports betting in their state – which, along with California, remain the two largest untapped markets for the gambling industry. Legal Sports Report estimated that these states could generate half a billion dollars from betting on the Super Bowl alone.

Litzler agrees that opponents of expanded sports betting face a perception problem. Many people think of sports betting as a harmless pastime, while a number of recent gambling industry commercials portray gambling as a way to add meaning and excitement to gaming.

When he speaks to churches or lawmakers about gambling, Litzler emphasizes the potential for harm, particularly when using betting apps. When people had to go to a casino to gamble, they had to be more conscious about what they were doing. And if they lost money, they would have time to cool off on the drive home.

That’s not the case when a bet is just a click away, he said.

“Harming your neighbor”

“What you have to do is say, I know it doesn’t look like it’s hurting you, but this is how it’s hurting your neighbor,” Litzler said.

In Alabama, where the issue of gambling will come up in the next session of the state Legislature, Davis of the Alabama Citizens Action Program said he is also talking about gambling as a threat to the integrity of the sport.

He pointed to the recent case of Brad Bohannon, the former coach of the University of Alabama baseball team who was fired last year amid a betting scandal. This week, the NCAA ruled that Bohannon told a bettor that the team’s starting player was injured and would miss a game. According to ESPN.com, the bettor therefore attempted to place a $100,000 bet on the game.

According to the sanction imposed by the NCAA, any team that hires Bohannon as a coach must suspend him for “100% of the baseball regular season for the first five seasons of his employment.”

Davis said the scandal was a sign of things to come.

“It will ruin the sport,” he said.


EDITOR’S NOTE – This story was written by Bob Smietana and originally published by Religion News Service.

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