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Betting on sports

As a baseline, you should know that I am not a gambler. Perhaps you could say I’m risk averse, but perhaps more specifically, I don’t like losing money. And perhaps more importantly, I don’t get any rush from winning money either. So putting money on some team to win or cover isn’t all that appealing to me, because it feels like all risk and very limited reward.

That does not appear to be the case for young people in this country, at least according to a new study commissioned by the NCAA. It found that for 18-22 year olds, 58% have gambled on sports in the past year. For college students who live on campus, 67% have wagered. Almost half of those have bet on their own university’s teams; and over a third have used a student bookmaker, veering from questionable to illegal.

The survey includes quite a bit more disconcerting information, including the 6% who have lost more than $500 on a single day and the 16% who are categorized as risky gamblers – betting more than average across a broad range of sports. And not surprisingly, most acknowledge to have seen ads for one of the many sports wagering sites and that these promotions have made them more likely to bet. This is the current predictable trendline for sports wagering in the US, one where business imperative has overwhelmed a reasoned approach to the human condition.

Of course, young adults have long engaged in risky behaviors – especially college students. In some regard, that is a marquis of newly found adulthood. Colleges in particular have often been complicit in the process, enabling a culture of, say, binge drinking, as part of the university experience. And to be clear, there’s not much any university can do to eliminate such perceived rites of passage – although college aged binge drinking has continuously receded over the past several years. So it’s not as if young adults are getting worse. To the contrary, it seems they may be more enlightened than generations past – or at least more afraid.

So what it is with sports gambling, and what are we to think or do about it? First, it’s worth acknowledging the root of the problem, assuming you believe it to be so. Gambling is on the rise because we’ve said it’s okay and because we’ve made it far more available. College students may have been gambling forever, but it used to be hard. And you always knew it was wrong. You knew that because it always was a friend who had a friend who could take your $100 on USC, but don’t let anyone else know. Contrary to popular vernacular, making something hard to do doesn’t inherently make it more popular. It usually just makes it harder.

Second, this shift didn’t happen because psychologists decided gambling isn’t risky after all. It happened because American sports leagues and networks realized that gambling built a more sustainable business model in a landscape of dwindling new revenue and where the competition for eyeballs is increasingly fierce. If the attention span of the average sports fan continues its downward spiral and endless entertainment choices are a click away, what better to keep them tuned in than by making the outcome more interesting and personal even when it isn’t. And, as everyone from state and federal government to sports teams to leagues realized, if someone was going to be making money off of gambling, it may as well be them. So let’s not pretend this rise in risky behavior is anything other than a cash grab.

And perhaps that’s the third point. We seem to have accepted the rapid scaling of sports gambling as inevitable, much like we’ve accepted other national crises – see guns and obesity for more info. But it isn’t. And it is a risky behavior. Just like drinking and other things that theoretically can be done in moderation, but far more frequently are done with reckless abandon and impact. Just like the normalization of numbing yourself with wine a few nights a week because everyone laughs about it, our intensified relationship with sports gambling is yet another way we’ve ignored humanity in the name of commerce. Which would mean Marx is right – sport is simply an opiate for the masses.

Of course, as both a sports fan and a capitalist, I try to discount that supposition, even when it’s hard to. And it’s also why I chose not to bet on sports.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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