Monday, February 14, 2022
It's Monday, February 14th 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Big Story of the Super Bowl LVI? Gambling. — How the Snowball of Legal Gambling Predictably Turned into an Avalanche
Well, Super Bowl 56 is now in the rearview mirror. It was a relatively close game by Super Bowl standards, but in the end, the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals by a score of only 23 to 20. The Super Bowl has turned out to be a massive win for the NFL, a massive win for television, and it has, at least until the last couple of years, been a massive event in American popular culture. No doubt it still remains that, but it has lost stature and standing in terms of American culture, perhaps because there are now so many other forms of entertainment. There are so many other spectacles. And this one, oddly enough, is taking place right in the midst of another controversial spectacle which is the Olympiad unfolding in the Winter Olympics in Beijing right now.
So, you're looking at a situation in which the big story is really not about the score. The big story is not really about football. The big story, as it turns out, is about gambling and about a whole lot of gambling. This requires us to step back for a moment and understand at least two things. Number one, what exactly happened in Super Bowl 56 that has to do with gambling? Why was this Super Bowl different than previous Super Bowls? And then secondly, what should Christians think about the gambling issue? Because there is good evidence to believe that many Christians aren't thinking very well, if they're thinking very much, about gambling, which I shall argue, according to a biblical worldview, is a very serious moral issue. But let's take the first question first, why is this such a big issue in this particular Super Bowl? Why are we talking about it in a different light, sports betting related to the NFL related to the Super Bowl related to other sporting events? Why are we having the conversation now?
Well, the most immediate reason is because of what took place just over the last several days. We're talking about something like $7.6 billion in legal wagering on this particular Super Bowl event. By the way, that's just legal betting. Estimates are that there may be near $100 billion of illegal gambling when it comes to the Super Bowl. But we can't really cover the illegal part right now. The part that is of greater moral concern is the legalized gambling, because that means the society, specifically the government, has legalized this activity. And one of the things we're going to see is that government legalizes this activity because it wants a part of the pot. It wants its share in this massive new economic energy. But just about everyone does, which is the other part of the story.
But when we're talking about why this particular Super Bowl and this particular jump... By the way, there was an estimate of about 35% in the increase of gamblers over the previous year, and there was a pretty big increase last year. Again, we're going to go back to why that is the case. You have to go back to the year 2018 when the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a decision saying that Congress had illegally set up a law authorizing only two jurisdictions, two states, Nevada and New Jersey, especially Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to conduct legalized betting on sports. That was setting up those two states as having a particular advantage. Now, many people have simply said the Supreme Court in 2018 legalized sports betting, but that's not exactly true. And here's where a lack understanding about how the Supreme Court works leads to misleading statements.
Yes, we are talking about a vast expansion of gambling, yes, because of the Supreme Court decision, but the Supreme Court didn't consider whether or not it should legalize sports betting. That wasn't the issue. That's not the kind of thing the Supreme Court should do, and conservatives should be at the front line of believing that those are not the policy questions that we should invest in the Supreme Court. That's the liberal direction of the court during the period of the last half of the 20th century. No, the Supreme Court ruled on the specific legal question as to whether Congress had a right to establish a law, according to the constitution, that privileged two states out of 50 states in one particular economic enterprise. The Supreme Court said, "No. On that narrow legal question, Congress was acting unconstitutionally and also in violation of interstate commerce laws."
Once again, when it comes to Congress, what we really have here is congressional failure, congressional failure in the law that was stricken down, also congressional failure in lacking the moral fortitude to legislate on such a consequential public issue and such a consequential moral issue. Once again, let's just turn to what did happen. Again, an estimate of over $90 billion of illegal gambling. Well, illegal gambling, by definition, isn't regulated, that is not authorized. We as a society have fewer ways of dealing with illegal gambling than dealing with legalized gambling. Furthermore, legalized gambling comes in the form of the support of the state. Not just that, as is the case in so many other so called sin industries, the government wants a part of the pot. It wants a part of the proceeds, and it's already factored that in, which is why you had the other states wanting a piece of this pie. They really didn't want to bring sports betting to their states, they want the income in the billions of dollars that they count on getting to their coffers in just a matter of time.
There's also a demographic difference in the kind of gaming, the kind of gambling and betting that is believed to have taken place, especially associated with the Super Bowl last night and, of course, in the days preceding it. Because for one thing, the average gambler in legalized gambling, according to this kind of scheme, is actually a young male in the twenties and thirties. That's estimated to be the entry point to so many young men, so many young people, but young men in particular, into sports gambling. The problem is that a certain percentage of them will be hooked. And as is the case with so many other patterns of what's identified as addictive behavior, there are those who will become if not addictive, that's perhaps a medical term we should avoid, at least compulsive when it comes to gambling behavior.
Here's where Christians understand that evangelical Christianity, and yes, I'm putting it that way, in a rather narrow definition, evangelical Christianity has been very energetically opposed to gambling as a gross moral ill. But you wouldn't know that looking at many evangelicals today who think it's a non-issue, or they would define it as a victimless crime, or they would simply misunderstand gambling and misunderstand the economy and make ridiculous comparisons such as arguing that gambling on a football game is about the same as buying a stock on the stock market.
By the way, one of the reasons that the gambling has increased so much in this game, this particular Super Bowl, was because states are phasing in their legalized sports betting in such a way that there were more states that had legalized betting for the 56th Super Bowl than year for the 55th. And presumably, you can count on the fact that there will be more for the 57th. But let's take a closer look and understand that there are so many different pernicious or dangerous, morally-suspect dimensions to this. For example, gambling itself is a problem in a biblical worldview because the Bible's understanding of appropriate, God-honoring economic activity is about thrift, it is about the connection between labor and its reward. It is about the appropriateness of the worker receiving wages. It is about the dignity of work and the rightfulness of work being connected to reward.
It's also about the rightfulness of intelligent and morally-rightful investment, and investment also coming with reward. There are encouragements to frugality. There are warnings against, of course, greed and grift and graft. There are very clear biblical teachings about the goodness of investment, even Jesus and the parable of the talents. And you have the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, as well as all the historical narratives making very clear that the Bible condemns laziness, the Bible condemns a fool being parted from his money so easily. The Bible makes very clear sanctions against those who act foolishly with money. And something like gambling is described when we are told that there are those who invest as if there are holes in the bag, the coins just fall through. This is a ridiculousness that is pointed to in the wisdom literature in the Old Testament. But also it is a lack of economic responsibility that Jesus even uses as the necessary background to his parables.
Joseph De Avila, who wrote a very interesting article about this in the Wall Street Journal, the headline, "Super Bowl Expected to Be Biggest Betting Event in Football History." You're going to appreciate one particular paragraph on the other side of the game being played: "Die-hard Cincinnati Bengals fan, Dennis Walker, 71 years old, said he was visiting Las Vegas last February when he decided to bet $20 on his team to win it all in the Super Bowl." Now, I think the key to this is understanding it was last February, "Mr. Walker, who's from Cincinnati, said his bet is poised to pay out $3,520 if the Bengals win. 'And let me tell you something,' he said, 'they're bringing back the Lombardi Trophy.'" Well, the next sentence was this, "The Los Angeles Rams are favored to win the game." Let me just remind you, the Los Angeles Rams did win the game. The Cincinnati Bengals did not take back the Lombardi Trophy. And at least when it comes to this wagering, Dennis Walker offered a bad bet.
Now, there's some who would come back and say, "Well, there are many people who can simply afford it. It's a means of entertainment. It's like a form of a game." Only there's real money that's involved here. And a $20 bet for most people like this would not be a very dangerous moral susceptibility, but when it comes to some, it clearly is. Of course, all you have to do if you want to understand this is look at the tardiness of the gambling industry, especially as you get closer to the places where gambling is so intensified. I'm not even going to mention place names, you know what they are. And it's not just place names, it is individual spots now in states and in different locations where casinos or other forms of gambling have been given a license to operate.
But that reminds us of something else. All of this becomes a very, very dangerous and pernicious snowball, so to speak. Rolling down the hill, it just picks up size, it picks up energy, and it rolls right over the arguments that were used to legitimate and to legalize the form of gambling that came before, which is to say, look at what the states have been doing? The states began, first of all, a race in the last half of the 20th century towards legalized lotteries, which were supposedly a low-risk form of gambling that would produce proceeds that would alleviate the states having to raise taxes for schools, for education. In many states, that was a winning argument. Florida had one of those lotteries. But then Georgia came along with the argument, "Look, all the business is going to Florida. Why let people just drive down on I-75 to make their wagers? You should instead capture that money for the state of Georgia." It was a winning argument.
But as I said, it's a progressive argument because once you have the competition in something like a lottery, you end up with something like an equalization. And so, you have to come up with other things like massive multi-state games and all kinds of other things, but the limitations on growth become very apparent. So then you move on to what you said you were trying to prevent when you legalized the first form. You legalize lottery saying, "Well, we would never legalize casinos." But the next thing you know, you're doing something just like that. And not only that you're coming up with ridiculous things such as you see in a state like Indiana where you have legalized gambling, or at least have had legalized gambling, that is allowable only on river boats. And so, you have entire structures claimed to be boats with moats around them in order to be meet legal muster.
In some legal sense, the boat might float, but the moral argument clearly sinks.
You Simply Bought A Chance to Win a Game of Chance: The Temptations of Sports Betting and the Waning Evangelical Concern of Legalized Gambling
But then just remember that even in recent years the assurance was, "Well, the one thing we would never legalize is sports gambling, gambling on sports activities." And the reason for that is because if you're looking at any form of human endeavor which is most susceptible to manipulation and to corruption when it comes to the gambling industry, well, you're talking about sports. Need you mention the scandals that have hit major league baseball in the 20th century, figures alive right now who are banned from baseball because of their involvement in sports betting.
And then people are going to come back and say, "Well, yes, we're going to make it legal now, and my state is going to participate in it because, after all, we don't want to be at a disadvantage to other states. And so, we're going to get into it but we're going to protect the gambling industry. We're going to protect the integrity of sports." Yes. And of course, you would never do the next thing, which is actually the next thing you're going to do.
New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, one of the very few in the mainstream media to appoint it to this problem, but it also points to something else which is interesting, and also, it's an intersection of this kind of issue and theology. Because earlier on I spoke about the opposition of Protestant evangelical Christianity to gambling. You find a somewhat different position when you look at the historic practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Many Catholic parochial schools and parishes, for example, raise money through raffles. They raffle off a car. They raffle off some other good. And they raise money that way. You also have just a different kind of moral reasoning, often known as casuistry, that means the moral reasoning in which you say, "You can go this far. You can do this."
Protestant evangelicals who base moral judgements more clearly and in a solitary way upon scripture have no such margin for maneuvering, no such elasticity. And that's why on the issue of gambling, there really is a material difference between the general Catholic position and the general evangelical position. But that's only true so long as evangelicals continue to believe this is a significant moral issue. In anticipation of the Super Bowl, Christianity Today ran an article that points to the waning evangelical concern over legalized gambling.
The article cites Jason McGuire who heads up an evangelical organization that's known as New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. We're told that he fought the legalization of online betting in New York last year. He's quoted in the article saying, "The Christian community needs to understand this is devastating to families that are impacted if people get caught up in this. On the anonymity of their cell phone, in the living room, they're gambling away their mortgage money. The whole world is setting people up for failure."
But I mentioned New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat. He acknowledges the damage that is likely to come. He says that some degree of culturally acceptance of gambling is necessary. I'm going to argue that's a debatable issue. I'm not going to join his argument there. He then goes on to suggest this principle: "So what you want then is for society to be able to say this far and no farther, even if the limiting principle is somewhat arbitrary."
Well, my argument is what that misses is the fact that the states and governments themselves have an incentive to lure their own citizens into this risky moral behavior in order to gain their own margin. So I think that argument doesn't succeed. I think it fails, and I think you have plenty of evidence in what we just talked about, from no legalized gambling to the lottery, from the lottery to certain forms of casino, and now online betting and who knows what follows that in a majority of the states.
So, even as we conclude, we understand that this is a big moral issue, and Christians need to understand that. We understand that there will be millions of families negatively impacted, that is to say harmed, by legalized sports betting. We need to understand that this injects very dangerous, pernicious, even evil temptations into the entire world of sport, as if it weren't morally problematic enough, that will incentivize people to cheat. And furthermore, you have to recognize how economics works in this because legalized sports gambling effectively added huge billions of dollars of capital value to these NFL teams. And there are collegiate teams who want that same kind of increased value.
Just to take professional sports, you have these NFL teams that are now worth billions of dollars more cumulatively simply because the addition of the income and revenue from legalized sports betting makes the entire enterprise now more valuable just in investment terms. But then let's look at that argument, it's an argument you hear from people saying, "Gambling really isn't any different than investing in stocks or in other forms of investing anyway. It's just gambling any way you look at it." But not true. In fact, that's just based upon a very dishonest argument. Many people who are making it aren't dishonest because they haven't thought about it, but if you think about it, you're going to recognize the problem. When you look at investing, which again is honored in scripture, thrifty, long-term, honest investment is valorized in scripture, buying a piece of life, investing in an economic enterprise. Now, there wasn't a stock market in the time of the New Testament, but investing was already very clearly understood. Just look again at the parable of the talents.
So, what makes real investing different than gambling? Well, in gambling, you are buying merely an opportunity by chance to win something that isn't based upon the value of anything inherent. In other words, you're not winning a part of a horse, you're not winning a part of a Super Bowl team, you're just winning a chance at a pot of money that includes money put there by other betters. That is not an investment. By the way, once the event is over, if you're on the losing side of the gambling equation, you have no value because you didn't invest in a business, you just bought a chance at winning a game of chance. The contrast with legitimate investing... And by the way, it could be the stock market, it could be a piece of land, again, something that is very much made clear as an example, in scripture, you buy a pot of land, it has real value. That value may go up, that value may go down based upon relative economic conditions, but there is real value, it is a piece of land.
Similarly, a share of stock legally issued in the name of a corporation is indeed something of real value. That value may go up, that value may go down, but if you own a share or shares of a legitimate business traded on a legitimate registered stock market or exchange, you don't have something that is merely a chance at an opportunity to win, or for that matter to lose, you are becoming a participant in that corporation by investing your money along with others. And your investment will rise or fall on the relative value of the business proposition and the capital owned by the business and relative conditions related to future expectations of the market. Now, at some point you may feel like you made a really good decision on this investment and a really less good decision on another investment, but the point is it is an investment. You are buying a part ownership of something. You are investing in a legitimate enterprise that is absolutely incomparable to the entire enterprise of gambling.
An Unfolding Series of Moral Challenges in the Beijing Olympic Games: Russia Finds Itself Mixed Up in Another Doping Controversy
But finally, as we're thinking about sports and morality, there will be an unfolding series of events this week. The Winter Olympic Games going on right now in Beijing represent an unfolding, seemingly endless series of moral challenges, most of them starting and ending with the fact that the Communist-dominated, totalitarian regime in China is conducting and hosting the games. That's really all you need to point to in terms of understanding the moral catastrophe of these games. You're talking about a human rights offender of a cataclysmic nature hosting what's supposed to be the most honored Olympic international event. But then you'll notice something else. In recent days, it turned out that a spectacularly successful 15-year-old figure skater, a young woman from Russia, is now believed to have failed a drug test in a pre-Olympic event that would have likely invalidated her participation in the games. And she's still expected to be the leading candidate to win a gold medal for her Russian team in the skating events.
But even as we're thinking about how gambling works, and one thing leads to another thing, and even as you're talking about sports, which is supposed to be a demonstration of human virtue and human commitment, well, all that gets mixed up when it comes to drugs. And when it comes to drugs, the Russians have been mixed up for so long. And it's not just the Russians, previously it was the precursor state to modern Russia, which was the USSR and its satellite nations, in which there were frequent, routine, basically just generalized defenses when it came to drugs. And even as Russia's gone on to host winter games, and, of course, we know the moral character of the entire regime, now we are looking at the fact that Russia, once again, is not even allowed to represent its team as Russia. Russian athletes winning will not get to hear the Russian national anthem. The Russian flag was not carried in the parade because Russia is a serial offender, everyone knows it, everyone knew it.
And here we are again, brought to us courtesy of the people who said they were going to prevent it the time before this and the time before that and the time before that as well.
And if you believe that, I've got a lottery ticket to sell you. Actually I don't, but you'd buy it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.