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Should Sports Broadcasts Promote Gambling?

In May 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the provisions in the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act – prohibiting states from authorizing sports betting – were unconstitutional. In the years that followed, many states began to legalize sports betting. According to the American Gaming Association, only 12 states have not yet legalized some form of sports betting. Additionally, in 30 states and the District of Columbia, bettors can place wagers using a mobile device like their phone. Since then, it has become a massive industry; about 20% of Americans in 2022 reported placing at least one sports bet in the prior year, and bettors have placed over 300 billion dollars in sports bets across the country since 2018.

This has begun to radically change sports broadcasts. Whereas in years past commentators may have made sly comments about potential bets, gambling is now discussed openly; broadcasts may give live updates on the betting line and display the over/under on the scoreboard. Today, significant portions of sports broadcasts are dedicated to gambling. Just look at the broadcasts from ESPN, the largest exclusively sports broadcasting network. ESPN now even lends their name to a sportsbook. During the PGA Championship, the network offered an “ESPN BET” broadcast which discussed potential bets and saw analysts providing input on bets as the action progressed. Broadcasters may even suggest specific wagers; during broadcasts of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, the team I follow, on the MSG Network, panelists would propose a specific parlay of prop bets during the pre-game, note the payout of that parlay, then check in on its progress each intermission.

It is worth considering whether this promotion of gambling by broadcasters is something we should normalize or whether it ought to be limited. To be clear, this is different from assessing whether sports gambling itself should be restricted. I tend to think that our attitudes regarding permitting gambling ought to fall under the harm principle – the idea that unless one’s actions are directly harming others, then we generally ought to avoid interfering with others’ choices. Although gambling can have harmful consequences, it does not directly harm others. (Though some of the points I raise later may put pressure on this idea.)

So, what precisely do I mean by “promoting gambling”? I’ll use this phrasing as shorthand for, effectively, encouraging viewers to place bets. This may include namedropping specific sportsbooks during broadcasts, offering deals for first time gamblers to place bets, discussing potential bets and/or dedicating time for analysts to provide their input on specific bets. There may be other ways in which a broadcaster could promote sports betting, these are just a few that I have encountered regularly while watching sports. Note, too, that this is different from merely allowing an advertiser to purchase ad spots.

One obvious argument for the permissibility of promoting gambling stems from the kind of considerations I mentioned earlier – considerations about harmfulness. It is just not immediately obvious that promoting gambling harms anyone.

Further, broadcasters are private companies acting on the marketplace. They receive money from advertisers of other products to promote those goods. What makes a sportsbook any different? Additionally, given the popularity of sports betting, it’s very likely that viewers would be interested in these segments. Thus, market forces, both at the level of advertising and at consumer preferences, suggest that the promotion of gambling is nothing more than normal corporate profit seeking.

However, this argument fails to note the ways in which sportsbooks may be different from other products and services that broadcasters promote. Gambling is potentially addictive. A 2015 study from Welte et al. found that 4.6% of Americans demonstrate problematic gambling behavior at some point in their lives, with problematic behavior being defined as meeting three or more criteria in the DSM-IV’s description of gambling addiction. 1.4% experience pathological gambling, demonstrating five or more symptoms. While the rates seem low, if they are generalizable to the U.S. population of about 336 million, this means that about 15.5 million Americans will engage in problematic gambling behavior and 4.7 million will at some point demonstrate pathological gambling.

It also stands to reason that these figures could rise even higher in the current landscape. First, betting is easier than ever; you can just download an app and keep placing bets from your couch while watching games. Second, the promotion and discussion of gambling during broadcasts normalizes betting. As this becomes a more normal part of sports fandom, those with addictive tendencies who may otherwise not gamble may be drawn in and develop an addiction.

Yet one might argue that this should not prompt calls for regulation. Ultimately, people can become addicted to many things; shopping, video games, and alcohol for instance are potentially addictive but most people can enjoy these things responsibly. And responsible use can be fun! Admittedly, I was a lot more interested in last year’s Super Bowl after I had placed a parlay on a few prop bets. Thus, someone making this argument may see regulations on gambling as a form of perfectionism, an attempt by the state to encourage people to develop virtues and avoid behaviors that some label as vices. This is, after all, part of the reason why gambling was previously illegal in the United States. Yet it seems that a democratic state has, at best, a limited prerogative to promote virtue. So perhaps regulating gambling by limiting promotion of sports betting falls outside this prerogative.

It may be worth noting, though, that we limit the ways in which other sorts of behaviors can be discussed or promoted. For instance, since 2009 cigarette advertisements have been illegal in the U.S. Further, while alcohol consumption is a significant part of sports fandom culture, and alcohol manufacturers, particularly beer producers, frequently advertise during sports, sports broadcasts do not dedicate entire segments to discussing the best beer to consume during the game or offering promotions for first time drinkers. Limiting the ways in which sports betting may be promoted, in particular by sports broadcasters, may offer a middle ground between prohibition of gambling and the recent state of affairs.

Additionally, aside from the effects on bettors, one might worry about potential conflicts of interest. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, the heavy promotion of sports betting may create perverse incentives for sports broadcasters. It is highly unlikely that this could trickle down to the level of competition – although it is worth noting that individual teams and leagues have created partnerships with sportsbooks. However, broadcasters may be able to shape bettor behaviors. Sportsbooks ensure profits, in part, by ensuring that roughly an equal number of bettors place wagers on opposite outcomes. To put it simply, they want the same number of people betting that the home team will win and that the visitors will prevail. Even if sportsbooks do not place pressure on the broadcasters with whom they advertise, these broadcasters have an incentive to make the partnership as lucrative as possible for the sportsbook. This could come in the form of encouraging bets that help balance the books, or perhaps even in the form of suggesting that incredibly unlikely bets will pay off. Once broadcasters begin taking money from sportsbooks, it gives them incentive to mislead or manipulate their views.

Of course, one may argue that the speculation above goes too far. It goes into the realm of conspiratorial thinking; surely if sportsbooks were working with broadcasters to help increase the profits, this secret would be difficult to keep. Regardless, just the appearance or potential for a conflict of interest may often be just as troubling as an actual conflict. Although sports broadcasters do not seem to have a robust moral obligation to be honest to viewers, they ought to carefully consider whether their choices may undermine the extent to which viewers think of them as trusted sources of information. The American public in general has little confidence in institutions, so perhaps we ought to be careful to give them more reason to distrust yet another institution.

The landscape of sports betting has rapidly changed in the United States. Previously treated as a kind of “open secret” that broadcasters only cheekily referenced, it’s now difficult to watch a game without seeing betting lines, an over-under or prop bets on a specific player’s performance. Given gambling’s addictive nature and this addiction’s potential to create great harms, it is worth taking a step back to consider the reasons for and against allowing this state of affairs to continue as is.

From Conscience to Constitution: Should the Government Mandate Virtue?

photograph of cards, dice, chips, cigarettes, and booze

You have probably heard it said that you can’t legislate morality, that making laws that require people to do the right thing is both ineffective and authoritarian. Nevertheless, in his recent Atlantic article entitled “American Has Gone Too Far in Legalizing Vice,” Matthew Loftus encourages politicians to do just that. By legalizing sports betting and recreational marijuana, Loftus argues that states are neglecting to consider the countless addicts that will result, and that lawmakers should do more to outlaw these harmful vices.

On Loftus’s view, public policy plays a role in the habits that we form, and creating an environment where more people succumb to their vices is neither good for addicts nor the political communities that will be left picking up the pieces. A substantial portion of gambling revenue comes from those who struggle with addiction, and legalizing marijuana is linked to higher rates of drug abuse. If these activities remained illegal, then fewer people would get hooked.

On this score, it seems that Loftus is obviously correct. Our environments play a significant role in the habits we adopt. If I am surrounded by responsible peers, I will be more likely to study for my next exam, while if many of my friends are cutting class, I will be more likely to skip out as well. These choices then form my habits. In the good case, my habits will be virtues like temperance, honesty, and diligence. In the bad case, my habits will lead me into all sorts of vice, including destructive addictions like gambling and drug use.

But even if it is true that our environments form our habits, the question still remains whether it’s the government’s place to guide us towards virtue instead of vice.

As a democracy founded on the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it may be too heavy-handed for political leaders to require us, or even nudge us, to live a certain way.

This concern is amplified by the fact that many of the philosophers who have been the staunchest advocates of state-sanctioned virtue have not been very enthusiastic about democracy. According to Plato, a well-functioning political community should mirror the way that virtuous individuals conduct their lives, while for Aristotle, the purpose of government is to help citizens to live flourishing lives of virtue. But Plato also held that we should all be ruled by philosopher kings, a class of highly educated rulers, and that the freedoms granted within democracies would inevitably lead to anarchy. Likewise, Aristotle thought that monarchy and aristocracy are superior to democracy. An emphasis on character formation through the law might also lead to rejecting democracy as a promising form of government rather than embracing important constitutional freedoms.

These considerations reveal that there is some tension between allowing citizens the freedom to conduct their own lives and passing laws that promote virtue. Part of this tension arises because we often disagree about what is morally best, a fact that the political philosopher John Rawls called reasonable pluralism. Intelligent, well-intentioned citizens can find themselves at odds over many key moral questions.

Is gambling a harmless pastime or a serious moral vice? Is access to abortion a central human right, or the murder of an innocent human being? By enforcing policies that promote particular virtues, lawmakers may have to come down on one side or the other of these ongoing debates.

Furthermore, even in cases where we can agree on what is morally best, it is not clear that the law should prevent us from doing things that we know are to our detriment. Certainly the law should prevent us from interfering with how others choose to pursue happiness, but if we are only hurting ourselves, then why is that anyone’s business besides our own? Part of making room for the pursuit of happiness is allowing citizens to decide for themselves what they pursue, not limiting them to only a menu of government-approved options.

All of this, however, overlooks the fact that promoting certain virtues might be an unavoidable aim even for democratic governments. If it is true that political institutions should enable their citizens to freely pursue their vision of the good life, this goal cannot be accomplished by being completely hands off.

To form and pursue their understanding of the good, citizens need wisdom, discernment, courage, and perseverance, amongst other virtues. These virtues are necessary, not because the government wants to control our lives, but because without them we would be incapable of controlling our own lives.

We would instead be left to the dictates of momentary desires or, in the worst case scenario, crippling addictions from which we cannot recover.

This insight opens up a potential middle road between fully laissez-faire public squares and domineering, authoritarian governments. According to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, political institutions should cultivate the capabilities necessary for their citizens to pursue self-directed lives. By promoting these capabilities, or virtues, governments ensure that their citizens are able to pursue their own unique visions of the good.

This approach allows that the law can encourage citizens in virtue in a way that creates and supports their ability to choose the life that they want to lead. On this model, the rule of law would not be completely value neutral, but it would make space for people to be able to choose many of their own values.

Forbidding certain kinds of vice, like preventing adults from gambling or using addictive substances, would for the most part be off the table. Unless the government wants to endorse a more robust picture of what a good life is like, the default position would be to let those who can choose their own informed goals pursue those ends. Recreational activities, like football or freediving, come with substantial dangers, but it is typically left up to individuals whether they want to take on those risks. In contrast, protecting those who are still forming the ability to choose their own life paths, like forbidding Juul from marketing to children, would be well within the purview of government officials.

Of course, just having laws that promote virtue does not ensure that anyone will become particularly moral. While they may succeed in outlawing vice, laws simply compel behavior, and those who begrudgingly comply out of fear of punishment would not for that reason become deeply good. The law, rather, would act as a guide for what kinds of values might be worth adopting, and citizens can then decide whether or not they want to choose these ideals for themselves. Policies like sin taxes, for instance, allow states to discourage vice without outright banning it.

Thus, even a view like Nussbaum’s leaves plenty of room for people to develop their own distinctive moral characters. Democracies can lay the groundwork for citizens to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, but at the end of the day, it is up to them to decide what values their lives will ultimately serve.

Are Loot Boxes “Quite Ethical”?

photograph of videogame mystery box

It’s not often that someone comes out and declares that something that has both received considerable scrutiny and is illegal in several countries is, in fact, “quite ethical.” But this is what recently happened during a UK House of Commons hearing concerning the existence of loot boxes in videogames. Kerry Hopkins, current vice president of legal and government affairs at videogame giant EA, declared that there were, in fact, no ethical issues with loot boxes, and that they should instead be thought of as “surprise mechanics”; she would go on to argue that the UK government should not make it illegal to sell videogames featuring loot boxes given that “people like surprises.” Those looking to enact legislature banning the sale of videogames with loot boxes tend to compare them to a form of gambling, one that is particularly egregious given that a considerable number of those playing said games are adolescents. 

The way many loot box mechanics work in videogames is as follows: one can purchase – either with real money or virtual currency specific to a particular game – a virtual mystery box containing items that appear by chance, with odds being weighted by how common or rare they are deemed to be. These items vary depending on the game being played. For example, loot boxes may contain virtual items used for cosmetic changes for a character – e.g. you can put a new kind of hat on them – while others may contain items that will give you an advantage while playing the game – e.g. maybe that hat is not just a hat, but some sort of power hat that makes you stronger.

The presence of loot boxes is taken to be most controversial when they both cost real-world money and contain items that offer distinct advantages to players. Cases that have received some of the most scrutiny recently have been titles published by EA, including Star Wars Battlefront II, and recent entries in the company’s popular FIFA franchise. In both of these games, players have incentive to buy loot boxes with the hope of acquiring items that could make them more powerful in the former, and to buy virtual packs of cards to acquire better players for their teams in the latter. In response to these two games in particular, several countries – including Belgium and The Netherlands – have categorized loot boxes as a form of illegal gambling, with several other countries – including the UK and various parts of the United States – considering whether or not to follow suit. 

The argument against the selling of loot boxes generally comes down to whether they should be considered a form of gambling – which, if so, would be similarly illegal in places in which gambling in general is illegal – specifically a kind of gambling that is directed at children and adolescents. “Gambling for children and adolescents” certainly sounds bad. On what basis, then, could someone make the claim that, despite appearances, loot boxes are actually “quite ethical”?

Hopkins’ argument is something like the following: there are numerous real-world toys that both cost real-world money and are aimed at children, and no one has raised any ethical concerns about selling them. For example, during the UK hearing Hopkins compared loot boxes to blind boxes – actual physical boxes that contain a random specific kind of toy inside, with some toys being more likely to be inside than others – and other real-world toys like Hatchimals and Kinder Eggs that similarly involve an element of surprise. If you don’t have a problem with those kinds of physical toys, the argument goes, then you shouldn’t have a problem with their virtual equivalent.

Other governments are in agreement with Hoskins: for example, in 2017 members of various government regulatory bodies in New Zealand decided that loot boxes do not constitute gambling. The main argument against classifying loot boxes as a form of gambling was that they are not purchased with the intention of winning money, “or something that can be converted into money.” That in-game loot boxes only provide benefits in the game, and not for real-world goods or money, is an argument that has also been used by EA CEO Andrew Wilson, who emphasized that EA does not “provide or authorize any way to cash out or sell items or virtual currency for real money.”

Determining whether loot boxes constitute gambling will, of course, depend on how one defines “gambling”. If we take gambling to be restricted to just those activities in which one pays money to play a game of chance for the purpose of potentially winning additional money, then it would seem that loot boxes do not, by this definition, constitute gambling. The definition of “gambling” is, of course, up for debate, and, as we have seen, varies from country to country.

However, even if we deny that loot boxes constitute gambling, there will still potentially be problems with allowing them in videogames. The first is that, despite not being able to win money directly within the game, there are many well-known third-party websites that buy and sell loot box items. Second, even if loot boxes are not technically considered a form of gambling, that does not mean that they are, in fact, “quite ethical”.

Consider the first worry first: well-aware of the existence of third-party resellers of loot box prizes, Wilson stated that EA “forbid[s] the transfer of items or in-game currency” outside of the games, with Hopkins attributing these problems to “bad guys”. We might ask, however, whether EA should take any responsibility for being part of a system in which people can pay for a chance to win something that does have real-world value, even if EA themselves doesn’t approve of it. We could interpret this situation in a couple of ways: on the one hand, we might think that, as an unwilling participant in the third-party reselling business, EA should not be held accountable for the actions of some bad actors; on the other hand, we might think that, given that EA is well aware of the existence of these third parties, that the loot box mechanics just sounds like gambling with a couple of extra steps.

Regardless of whether we think that loot boxes constitute gambling or “gambling with extra steps”, we can still ask whether they are “quite ethical”. For instance, we might still be concerned that the system is one that encourages, if not straight-up gambling, then at least activity that is closely related to gambling in adolescents. While there has not been a lot of study on the long-term effects of loot boxes, one recent study found that not only do the majority of people who play games with loot boxes consider them to be gambling, but that “Risky Loot Box use correlated moderately with gambling-related measures.” While this research appears to still be in its infancy, there is at least some empirical support for concerns about their effects. Despite EA’s insistence, then, there remains plenty of reason to be concerned that loot boxes are not as ethical as they would have consumers believe.

States’ Rights, Sports, and the Harm of Gambling

Image of gamblers in a sports betting hall.

The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law prohibiting sports betting. In 1992, a federal law prohibited states from authorizing sports gambling. This week, Justice Alito provided his reasoning in favor of protecting states’ rights, wanting to avoid the federal government interfering with state legislatures making their own rulings regarding the issue of wagering on professional and amateur sports, which is indeed legal in Nevada. Many states anticipated the Supreme Court ruling and have been mobilizing to profit on their newfound avenue for revenue. Citizens will be able to start wagering on sports in New Jersey, for instance, in the next two weeks or so.

Continue reading “States’ Rights, Sports, and the Harm of Gambling”