Our Opinion: Court triggers a perilous gambling gold rush

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"Never bet on anything with two legs" is a timeless dictum that still commands respect, particularly when a recent Supreme Court ruling has opened the gates to explosive expansion of the gambling industry in individual states. By striking down a federal ban on sports betting that excluded only Nevada, the justices on Monday cleared the way for states to permit — and, not incidentally, to squeeze tax revenue from — legal bookmaking on sporting events. This includes the possible opening of betting parlors, casinos expanding their offerings to include the new "product," and the wild frontier of online betting from one's cellphone.

While many state officials around the country — including members of the Massachusetts Legislature — view the ruling as a potential bonanza for state coffers, it would be wise for everyone to take a deep breath and consider the downside of sports gambling legalization before gleefully concocting ways for the state to skim its take off the top.

There is a reason why gambling (or "gaming," in the euphemistic parlance of the industry) has traditionally been looked on askance and why, until relatively recently in our nation's history, the "sport" had been limited to certain locales: It is not a victimless crime. Gambling addiction can ruin the lives of individuals, families and entire communities as bettors lose caution and good judgment in the relentless search for the big win. It is a regressive activity, in that it inordinately affects the poor who have less disposable income to spend but who are more susceptible to gambling's siren call as a chance to better their lives. Moreover, should gambling become as easy as betting in real time on the next strikeout at a baseball game, or completed pass in football, bettors who never even realized they might have a problem, including young sports fans, could get sucked down the hole of addiction.

The gambling industry, in general, thrives on money that would otherwise be spent on retail items, food, housing and all the other necessities of life. What gets lost at the tables is money taken out of a state's economy. In the case of Massachusetts' one legal casino in Plainville and two planned for Everett and Springfield, that money enriches one corporation based in Pennsylvania and two in Nevada, respectively. With New England's many casinos cannibalizing one another in pursuit of customers, the casinos desperately want in on sports betting. Fantasy sports websites and the Lottery also want in on the windfall and aren't worried about safeguards protecting gamblers.

Then there is the "integrity of the game" argument. This has been used by all four major professional leagues and the NCAA in its attempt to halt the spread of legalized sports gambling. Interestingly, the argument disappears when leagues consider the possibility that they might get a cut of the lucrative market. As Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs told The Boston Globe, "If they are going to gamble on your sport, I think you should be compensated for it." Considering that the American Gaming Association estimates that $150 billion is wagered illegally each year, the flood of money about to be released will create an environment that would tempt the most ethically minded athlete, team and league to influence outcomes.

Finally, the pots of free tax money that Beacon Hill legislators are currently envisioning may prove to be a chimera. Bookmakers operate on a thin margin, and sometimes actually lose when the odds betray them. It could turn out that after several years of legalized sports betting, the resulting damage to the state's social framework may have been greater than it was worth in dollars. It's better not to take the risk at all.




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