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Legal Gambling Sure Bet to Change Business, Culture of Sports

Sean McKeever
Prof. Sean McKeever

On Monday, May 14, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to strike down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Passed in 1992, the law (PASPA) banned state-authorized sports gambling in most states. The decision seems likely to transform the business and culture of sports.

How quickly legal betting becomes commonplace isn't yet clear, but some states are poised to move quickly. For example, a race track in New Jersey plans to open a sports book by Memorial Day weekend.

While some states chase the promise of new revenue–the American Gaming Association estimates that $150 million is bet illegally each year–the decision brings a host of ethical challenges. We asked Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy Sean McKeever a couple of questions about how widespread gambling could affect sports. This fall, McKeever will teach "The Philosophy of Sport," where the class will explore sports ethics in detail.

How does an ethicist examine gambling–something most people consider unethical?
Well, some people think gambling is a vice pure and simple, but unless one can spell out why it is a vice, this can seem like undue moralizing. Others think gambling ought to be forbidden because gamblers harm themselves.

Talking about gambling this way quickly becomes a classic argument that pits paternalism against freedom. If we are not harming others, shouldn't we be free to dispose of our money as we see fit? We do not generally forbid people from making foolish financial decisions.

Finally, some people think gambling is wrong because it has widespread harmful effects on society, like encouraging debt, or greed, or crime. If this is the argument, then it is important not just to assume that gambling has those effects. One needs to look carefully at the evidence.

However, I think one thing is clear: We shouldn't lump all gambling together; some forms of gambling might pose different threats than others.

So, wagering on sports is different than other casino games?
What strikes me as potentially distinctive about sports gambling is that sports (unlike most other forms of gambling) have a real value outside of gambling. No one would play poker or take guesses at the roulette wheel unless doing so was a way of resolving a bet.

But we could very well have basketball, soccer, tennis, football and so on without gambling.

So, sports gambling is special because it presents a threat to an otherwise valuable human activity.

So, sports gambling requires special consideration because it affects something many Americans enjoy?
I don't think it's any surprise that the parties who lost their case in the Supreme Court were all sports leagues. The stakes are really high. They fear that the spread of sports betting will damage their leagues, which are built on the premise of fair play.

And if that is a concern, it is important to be concrete and realistic. We should avoid high-minded but ultimately empty tsk-tsk-ing. If Davidson plays an A10 tournament game, nothing is tainted merely because someone out in Nevada puts a bet on it. However, history teaches that the money behind gambling has interests of its own and that can lead to corruption, like the infamous 1919 "Black Sox" scandal. The question to ask, and I am agnostic about the answer, is how much risk of corruption does gambling create?

What would happen if widespread legal gambling began to affect the outcomes of games?
The consequences are huge. The NCAA basketball tournament would not generate more than a billion dollars in revenue if fans thought–or even strongly suspected–that the games were fixed. And beyond money, almost every devoted athlete cares deeply that games are won or lost on the basis of fair play and athletic skill. If that ceased to be the case, I think most athletes would feel that what they most love about sport had been lost.

Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920