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Resisting sports gambling sometimes a losing bet, faith leaders say

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

(RNS) — 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, according to 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, which 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.

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.

“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 in 2018 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.”

“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, McGowan said, 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, found that 58% of Americans said gambling was morally acceptable. In 2023, 70% of those surveyed said it was moral to gamble.

Legal sports gambling has become a lucrative business, according to a recent report 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 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 gambling 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.

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,” Litzler said.  

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.