At the beginning of the 2023 NFL season, a study for the American Gaming Association predicted that almost 50 million adults would bet on NFL games online, at a casino sportsbook, or with a bookie. Fifty million are expected to bet one of those ways on Sunday’s game, 38 million of them online.
Television advertisements for online betting services (FanDuel, DraftKings, etc.) seem as ubiquitous as cigarette commercials were until they were banned to protect people from themselves — from an addictive and harmful habit. One should avoid language that medicalizes too much of life, but gambling unquestionably can be addictive. The thrill of risk, and of winning, can trigger dopamine and endorphin surges. And today cravings for more can be satisfied by using devices in most pockets and purses: Smartphones enable dumb decisions.
Time was, some people took the risk of gambling because, well, why not? Simply living involved multiple omnipresent risks — poverty, disease, wolves, brigands. Perhaps today many people gamble (or ride roller coasters) because everyday life lacks the intense experience of risk. Such gambling is not a degenerate quest for wealth without labor; it is a lust for limited risk without serious danger.
But a real danger exists. Ben Krauss, writing for the Slow Boring blog, cautions that for some people gambling is so “highly addictive” that psychological and physiological processes displace actual decision-making. This is especially so when bets are made during in-game excitements — a form of intense fan engagement from which teams profit. The $2 billion spent advertising online gambling is, Krauss says, working: “Since 2018, $220 billion” — approximately the annual gross domestic product of Nevada — “has been wagered in legal sports books, with the annual total increasing by an average of 22% year over year.”
Krauss notes that some states have tried — good luck with this — banning sports gambling advertisements reaching people under 21. Or banning celebrity endorsements of such gambling. The Supreme Court, upholding Puerto Rico’s ban on casino advertising, held that reducing gambling is a legitimate government interest.
But gambling is not dangerous the way smoking is: Cigarettes, the focus of a concerted public health campaign for six decades, are harmful when used as intended. For most who bet, their pastime is harmless, and we should not constrain a large majority to protect a relatively small minority from what is called a “disorder of impulse control.”
In 2017, Commissioner Roger Goodell said: “We are not changing our position as it relates to legalized sports gambling.” In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prevented states from permitting sports gambling. Why not, when 45 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries? Today, there is a sportsbook in the Washington Commanders’ FedEx Field.
Gambling was long considered a sin. Massachusetts Puritans passed a law against it in 1638, and in 1935, Grand Rapids, Mich., jailed a woman who organized bingo games to support a Catholic charity. Today, promoting gambling is a social policy. Actually, it always has been. The Jamestown settlement, the Continental Army, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and many other institutions and public works were financed at least in part by lotteries.
Today, gambling is mainstream in a nation with about 1,000 casinos, a $9 billion online betting market and sports media chattering earnestly about point spreads. Disney-owned ESPN — et tu, Mickey Mouse? — has an online betting brand, ESPN Bet.
Speaking of impulse control disorder, Super Bowl Sunday is the second-most high-calorie day (after Thanksgiving) in a nation whose obesity epidemic is producing many men and women shaped like NFL interior linemen. The ultimate game is the national campfire around which gorging Americans gather annually. When this year’s fire is extinguished by a merciful final tick of the game clock, the winner will be: America. It will have a year to recuperate from a day of wretched excess, and only two days to wait until it hears the loveliest four words in the English language: “Pitchers and catchers report.”