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Why Faith Leaders Lost The Battle Against Online Sports Betting

Por Bob Smietana
super bowl betting gambling
People pose for photos at Caesars Palace along the Las Vegas Strip ahead of the Super Bowl, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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.

More than a few will place bets, often on their cellphones.

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

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

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

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But those wagers are relatively low-stakes, he said, compared to industrial-strength sports gambling. Davis said he and other faith leaders in Alabama believe sports gambling is harmful and addictive. They object to the idea of the state profiting off the gambling losses of Alabama’s citizens.

greg davis
Greg Davis. (Photo courtesy Alabama Citizens Action Program)

“We don’t think the state government should be in business with corporate gaming to prey on its own people,” he said. 

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

McGowan, who has been nicknamed “the Odds Father” because of his research on gambling, said faith leaders were caught flatfooted by how fast legalized sports gambling became commonplace.

After New Hampshire started the first state-run lottery in 1964, he said, it took nearly 60 years for 40 other states to follow suit. Legalized sports betting took five years to get that popular — after the Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that limited legal sports betting to Nevada.

Instead of having to jet off to Las Vegas to place a legal bet, in most states, people can pull out their phones and use a popular app like Fan Duel or Caesar Sportsbook to place bets on the outcomes of games along with almost anything else that happens in a game.

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

richard mcgowan
The Rev. Richard McGowan. (Photo courtesy Boston College)

“The ethical theory a lot of people go by is you should be able to do what you want as long as you don’t harm somebody else,” he said. That makes it hard to argue against activities like gambling, which many people see as harmless entertainment but can have harmful side effects when people become addicted.

The states that have legalized gambling, he said, also see gambling as a pain-free source of revenue, which is then used for popular social causes like funding college scholarships. That also makes it hard to raise ethical questions about gambling.

“People have been doing it for years and years and years illegally, and now the government is basically saying, all right, it’s fine to do it legally, and by the way, we’ll make lots of money,” said McGowan.

Sports books also have an added advantage, said McGowan, in that they allow people to combine two things they like to do — gambling and cheering for their teams.

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

Public approval of gambling has grown steadily in recent decades. In 2009, Gallup, which has measured public views on gambling and other moral issues since 2003, fundar that 58% of Americans said gambling was morally acceptable. In 2023, 70% of those surveyed dijo it was moral to gamble.

Legal sports gambling has become a lucrative business, according to a informe reciente from the American Gaming Association. Commercial sports betting companies took in $9.2 billion in revenue on more than $106 billion in bets from January to November of 2023.

The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said faith leaders who raise questions about the downsides of legalized gambling can feel like they are facing overwhelming odds. She worries that sports leagues have become too cozy with the gambling industry.

laura everett
The Rev. Laura Everett. (Photo courtesy Massachusetts Council of Churches)

“The sports leagues — not only didn’t oppose this — they rolled over and said, ‘scratch my belly,’” she said. 

Still, she said faith groups that don’t agree on all kinds of other issues can find common ground in raising concerns about the ubiquity of sports gambling. And they still can have a voice, she said.

For example, the state of Massachusetts is looking at allowing bars to install sports-betting kiosks, and faith leaders like Everett have been asked to give public feedback about their concerns.

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

“Every time you expand gambling — there is a percentage of the population whose lives will be destroyed,” she said.

In some evangelical circles, social mores around gambling have evolved — particularly regarding poker, a form of gambling considered a game of skill similar to sports betting.

En 2013, Revista MUNDO reportado that Christian author and then-chairman of Moody Bible Institute, Jerry B. Jenkins, had bet thousands in poker tournaments for years. “I’m just a recreational player,” Jenkins told the reporter. “I don’t play for what I would consider significant amounts of money.”

Jenkins also admitted in the story that he gambled with then-Harvest Bible Chapel pastor James MacDonald, who at the time had a preaching program that aired on Moody Radio. Few of Jenkins’ readers or followers seemed to take note. 

Today, 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.

John Litzler, director of public policy of the Christian Life Commission for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said those with gambling addictions often show up at the door of churches or other faith groups when their lives fall apart.

Texas Baptists oppose making sports betting legal in their state — which, with California, remain the two largest untapped markets for the gaming industry. Legal Sports Report estimated that those states could generate half a billion dollars in bets on the Super Bowl alone.

Litzler agrees that opponents of expanded sports betting face a perception problem. Many people believe that sports betting is a harmless pastime, while a series of recent commercials from the gaming industry portray juego as a way to give games more meaning and excitement.

When he talks to churches or legislators about gambling, Litzler stresses the potential for harm, especially in the use of betting apps. When people had to go to a casino to gamble, they had to be more intentional about what they were doing. And if they lost money, they would have time on the ride home to cool off.

gambling betting
(Image from Pixabay/Creative Commons)

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

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

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

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

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 that scandal was a sign of things to come.

“It is going to ruin sports,” he said.

Josh Shepherd contribuyó a este informe.

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana es reportero nacional de Religion News Service.

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14 Respuestas

  1. Billy Graham once said that the greatest gamblers are the ones that delay their decision to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior
    There is no promise of tomorrow

  2. Ruin sports? No. They’re just making North American sports more like sports around the rest of the world. Ever seen the gambling sites as shirt sponsors for Premier League soccer teams (though I hear they’re soon going to be restricted to the sleeves!)? On LED boards at stadiums and arenas, even here?

    Major sports leagues and governing bodies in the U.S. face unsustainable business models, pay and unlimited free agency for “college” athletes, increasingly obscene pay for pro athletes and “college” coaches, billion-dollar facilities that go obsolete every 10 to 20 years, and a highly uncertain future in terms of broadcast contract and ad revenue as we move further into the ever-more atomized age of streaming. Gate receipts, even at hundreds of dollars per seat, don’t even begin to pay the bills and debt service (where the construction financing is private or shared), much less cover team payroll. Universal legalized gambling is the massive income redistribution scheme that will help ensure the whole enterprise continues to move steadily forward in our brave new world.

    Welcome to Vegas, America! It’s a cash extraction business and the house always wins. They know exactly what they’re doing and whose souls they’re going after.

    To anyone making a stand against all this, my hat’s off to you. Maybe some day the whole thing will crumple under the weight of it’s own inherent corruption. Till then, keep up that still, small prophetic voice that the world desperately needs to hear.

  3. I am struggling to understand what the faith angle of attack against gambling is, other than saying it is harmful and addictive.

    Even atheists could argue against gambling for the same reasons.

    1. To be sure there will be prophets who will predict a win for the Chiefs and others for the 49ers. And the response of those who predict wrongly will be……….silence.

    2. Richard, there are some of us whose definition of prophecy has more to do with informed truth-telling and little if anything to do with predictions. Except that a prophet might have as much occasion as anyone else to point out a cliff edge to an unwitting fellow traveler, maybe by yelling, “Stop!” Which might come across as a bit abrupt or even wild-eyed in polite company.

      (Side note: As an adherent to the more ecumenical definition of prophecy just summarized, I could care less who the girlfriend of the Chiefs’ star TE is, much less her taste in politicians or public policy. Even less so what the conspiracy-addled political right’s latest ranting is all about. My favorite color combination is blue and green; therefore, because of divisional rivalries past and present, I can’t think of a less inspiring matchup (or host venue) for this weekend’s Big Game. I have no prediction to make. Can’t the Chiefs, 49ers, and Raiders all somehow lose?)

  4. States see gambling and lotto revenue as free money. They quickly gloss over the human cost of addiction. There’s this incessant drumbeat to legalize and normalize all forms of vice. The moral issue here is the sin of greed. One of my bible college professors said the motivation is getting something for nothing. Getting rich without working for it. I saw an ad last night that said, “bet $5, get $200.” In real life, that doesn’t happen. Maybe once to hook the sucker, but after that…

  5. Well I play college football games, and the lottery I win some and I loose some how much I play is no one business, lets say if I win great! if I loose no big deal I also go to Vegas with my lovely wife of 53 years, and we have fun, just like the Christians who live down there do, I don’t pay attention much to what pastors think, They have enough problems due to Pastors and the many infidelity problems that has come upon them, allowing Gay pastors and allowing women Pastors, when Paul seriously said God made man to be leaders and women were help mates. no buts attached for he is the same today as yesterday. and as for Playing the lottery or Vegas and drinking little wine, “So let no one condemn you for what you eat or drink, or regard for festivals or New moon celebrations or sabbaths” Colossians 2:16″ praise his holy name.

    1. Well Derrell, those are some all-American words of wisdom. It’s a free country, and as someone who’s lost $5 here and there in a (legally gray but always local and friendly) office pool for March Madness, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge you a trip to Vegas with your wife of 53 years. You keep running on, and doing your part online to support worthy multibillion-dollar nonprofits like the NFL and their now (mostly) legal for-profit partners.

      PS: You might consider donating some of your occasional winnings to a fan-supported NIL fund for your favorite college football team. Times are tough and they need all the help you can give, especially if the school has long-term stadium debt and the most recent coaching change, transfer window, or conference realignment has been particularly brutal. I hear D-I athletic directors appreciate a cheerful giver at least as much as any career televangelist.

        1. You bet, Darrel. (See what I did there?)

          My apologies for misspelling your name previously; that was an honest mistake, and I own it without sarcasm (this time).

  6. I guess where this all stands is People throughout this world are Gambling with their SOULS, which my friend, when you lose you will never regain. you have a one-time shot in this life, and you can go to this religion or that religion or even you can go to Church, and think you will have a pretty good hand on the day of Judgment. until you hear these final devastating words. “Depart from me you who work lawlessness, I never knew you depart from me!” the key word here is “KNEW” the same Greek word used when Adam knew his wife EVE, meaning a very close personal relationship with Christ, he knows you and you know him, he has seen your hurt and you feel his love, you have fallen many times and he has picked you up. You may doubt him at times, but your faith, which Christ has given you, has kept you close by his side. When you bow before him and knowledge and release the pride that you are a sinner and are guilty, It will feel like you just hit the Ka gillion Doller lottery, Because now you will live with him forever, he will now never leave you or forsake you. Lord Bless

  7. I recently came across an intriguing article on the Gali Result site about Satta King and it shed a lot of light on this often misunderstood game. The article delved into the origins of Satta King, explaining its roots in the pre-independence era where it began as a form of betting on the opening and closing rates of cotton transmitted from the New York Cotton Exchange. This historical perspective was quite enlightening as it provided a context for the modern-day popularity of the game.

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Su donación deducible de impuestos ayuda a nuestros periodistas a informar la verdad y responsabilizar a los líderes y organizaciones cristianos. Haga una donación de $30 o más a The Roys Report este mes y recibirá una copia de “¿Y si Jesús hablara en serio acerca de la Iglesia?” por Skye Jethani.