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Our Dystopian Future Is Inside Your Gambling App

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Roulette wheel with the ball having landed

Earlier this month, basketball player Jontay Porter, former Toronto Raptors benchwarmer, saw his short and unimpressive NBA career come to an abrupt end. This severe penalty stems from his involvement in a gambling scheme that exploited his access to privileged information and his ability to influence game outcomes. He was caught manipulating his play and leaking insider health information to bettors, specifically using platforms like DraftKings to place high-payout, high-risk parlay bets — the kind favored by many of an ever-growing pool of gambling addicts for their potential huge returns.

How a marginal player tried to hedge his poor health for a payoff

Specifically, the NBA’s investigation uncovered that Porter had disclosed his health status — information not publicly available — to a known bettor prior to a game against the Sacramento Kings on March 20. This bettor then placed an $80,000 wager on a parlay bet that hinged on Porter’s inability to perform as expected, which could have netted a payout of $1.1 million. This particular bet, and the circumstances surrounding it, were flagged as highly irregular by sportsbooks, which led to further scrutiny and the eventual cancellation of the payout.

While this incident marks a significant personal setback for Porter, who was a marginal player compared to his star sibling Michael Porter Jr., it also highlights the broader vulnerabilities and challenges that organized athletics face in the era of legalized and technologically-facilitated sports betting that also contribute greatly to the bottom lines of big-time sports and the networks that broadcast or stream them. Porter’s lifetime ban is one of many canaries in a smoke-filled coal mine, each incident shedding light on the deepening integration of gambling not just into the fabric of sports but into our everyday lives.

Gambling apps and a Justicial allowance

With the proliferation of sports betting apps, catalyzed by a pivotal 2018 Supreme Court decision that struck down federal betting restrictions championed decades earlier by former NBA player and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, the landscape of sports consumption and engagement has transformed. Its prodigious growth over the past half-decade foreshadows a grim future in which gambling is not just a part of sports but synonymous with it.

After all, it’s not just the act of betting that led to Porter’s downfall but the ease with which bets on his performance could be placed. Mobile betting apps have proliferated following Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, unchaining the demons that Bradley, who came of age in an era when gambling scandals had rocked college and professional sports, had once sought to keep at bay. This decision didn’t just liberalize sports betting; it set the stage for a transformation in how sports are consumed, engaged with, and ultimately, compromised.

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Widespread gambling addiction

The trajectory is unsettling, particularly as it concerns young people. Nearly 75% of college-age young adults reported gambling in the past year, with student athletes and students who are sports fans gambling more than other students. A survey by the National College Athletic Association, involving 3,527 Americans aged 18 to 22, highlights the significant engagement with sports betting among this key demographic. The NCAA found that almost 60% of participants have placed bets on sports, with about 4% doing so on a daily basis. Furthermore, close to 6% of those surveyed have experienced losses exceeding $500 in just one day — something that some of us with young, sports-obsessed male relatives can personally attest.

Right before our very eyes, sports betting has woven itself into the fabric of sports entertainment, turning an ever-increasing array of streaming sports content — sometimes praised for the diversity of its offerings, a veritable golden age of all genders and sports, no matter how marginal or uninteresting — into objects for round-the-clock lottery-style parlay bets with significant “vigs,” the percentages deducted from a gambler’s winnings by the sportsbooks.

The networks are getting into the act

The rapid integration of gambling into live sports broadcasts is exemplified by offerings such as ESPN Bet — the official sportsbook of Disney’s sports broadcasting network, accessible directly from its homepage — and the NBA’s BetCast programming, in which sports-betting analysts cover the game from a gambling perspective. There, gameplay is reduced to a small window, overwhelmed by customized betting-specific graphics that dominate the screen. Indeed, NBA BetCast was partly the brainchild of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has publicly advocated for the legalization and regulation of sports betting, yet maintains a zero-tolerance stance against players like Porter — in large part because their exceedingly petty schemes would impact the big-time bottom line of the league-partnered sportsbooks getting rich off the type of parlay bets that Porter tried to rig.

Uneven regulatory enforcement

This grim situation is further complicated by the patchwork of state regulations that still govern sports betting in the U.S. In states like California, where sports gambling remains illegal and several professional teams lack local coverage because an attempt by casino owner Bally’s to buy and integrate gambling into regional sports networks met with failure, athletes and associated personnel are forced into precarious positions. They navigate a landscape where, despite the state’s efforts to maintain regulatory integrity, the lure of illicit betting rings can lead to serious legal and ethical violations.

This was starkly highlighted in the cases of newly-signed Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, and former Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, both caught in illegal betting operations. California’s stance is commendable in its attempt to hold the line against widespread gambling normalization — prohibition of an undesirable activity won’t completely stamp it out, but it can decrease its prevalence — but it also underscores the uneven enforcement and regulatory challenges across different states in the absence of the federal standard once supplied by Bill Bradley’s now-unconstitutional Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

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Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy in this dynamic is palpable. On one hand, there are sophisticated, mainstream platforms that promote and profit from sports betting, endorsed by the very leagues that penalize players for participating in the same system. On the other, there’s a punitive approach to individual missteps within this framework, highlighting a significant disconnect between the promotion of gambling by sports authorities and the enforcement of betting regulations.

As sports betting apps become as ubiquitous as social media platforms, their potential to wholly reshape the sports industry is immense. Imagine a future where these apps are not merely adjuncts but are fully embedded within all streaming and cable services. This integration could transform how viewers interact with live sports, making betting as easy and routine as changing the volume on the remote. Real-time betting odds could be displayed alongside live sports feeds, with dynamic odds adjusting to the game’s events, enhanced by algorithms designed to entice bets from individual gamblers at critical moments or notifying them of important betting events in other games.

The politicians give gambling a pass

Naturally, this seamless integration raises profound ethical and social concerns — but it seems that both political parties have already resolved them in gambling’s favor. Meanwhile, the distinction between gambling and sports entertainment continues to blur, leading to higher instances of gambling addiction as the marketers, software developers, and data scientists at the major sportsbooks collaborate to make their offerings as enticing and engrossing as possible (physical casinos have long since perfected these methods). The immediate accessibility of betting options will pose significant challenges for vulnerable groups, particularly young, single male viewers with otherwise-constrained life options, in managing their betting habits responsibly; the resulting debt crisis, particularly as the apps partner with creditors to offer in-app financing, could put the student loan and subprime mortgage crises to shame.

Beyond that, the integrity of sports is at risk. With gambling deeply embedded in the viewer’s experience, every play and decision in the game — which will eventually lose all meaning as a test of skill, being reduced entirely to grist for the gambling mill — could be influenced not just by sportsmanship or strategy but by the implications it holds for bettors. This will increase the pressure on athletes, coaches, and even officials, almost certainly leading to levels of manipulation and corruption that go far beyond Jontay Porter’s penny-ante effort.

Wanted: federal legislation

It is clear that while impressive advances in technology have enabled the widespread adoption of sports betting, this also necessitates stringent federal regulatory measures to safeguard not just the sanctity of sports — sports have never been as pure as the most idealistic sportswriters would like us to believe — but also the futures of the young people who are going to be fed into the ravenous maws of the sportsbooks. The need for comprehensive federal legislation on sports betting that will pass Supreme Court scrutiny becomes ever more apparent to prevent the kind of ethical breaches seen in cases like Porter’s.

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However, the social will to implement regulations akin to those championed by Bill Bradley has waned. In an increasingly gamified society, where life’s meaning is often derived from “having skin in the game,” the prospect of rolling back this tide seems increasingly unlikely. The question remains: can we restore and maintain the core values of sports, or will they be irrevocably altered by the ever-expanding influence of gambling? And if we can’t restore them and somehow constrain the sportsbooks, what’s left?

This article was originally published by RealClearBooks and made available via RealClearWire.

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oliver.lee1@gmail.com | Website | + posts

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work.

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