Legal Sports Betting in NC Will Bring Revenue and Ethical Challenges. It Could Also Set the Stage for a Cheating Scandal

Man betting on sports

Legal online sports betting promises a windfall for the state of North Carolina and sportsbooks, but it could also create a slew of unintended consequences. 

Online sports betting will be available to North Carolinians on Monday, March 11. Estimates indicate the state would take in $71 million annually by mid-2028 with much of that money supporting local, regional and state athletics initiatives, athletic programs at most University of North Carolina system schools, and problem-gambling programs.

But legal gambling also brings a host of ethical challenges. We asked Professor of Philosophy Sean McKeever about how widespread gambling could affect the integrity of professional and amateur sports. McKeever regularly teaches a “Philosophy of Sport” class where students 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.

What makes betting on sports different from 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? 

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 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.

In addition, the dawn of NIL (name, image, likeness) in college sports is likely to create a situation where some players on some teams are earning significant NIL income while other players earn little or nothing. I fear that pairing that income disparity with sports betting may create exactly the environment in which a cheating scandal is likely.