A state cannot profit from the degradation of its citizens. But since the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on sports gambling in Murphy v. NCAA, state after state has joined a race to the bottom — selling out their citizens for the possibility of revenue from state-licensed sports gambling.

In 2021 and 2022, Georgia’s state legislature weighed whether to amend the state constitution and join the gold rush. The attempt has failed for the second time, and rightly so.

Georgia is one of only 14 states, including Utah, still holding the line. Every year, it may be more tempting for the remaining states to give in. After all, what good does it do to be the lone holdout, when any resident can still access a sportsbook by fudging their phone’s location data with a VPN? The only question the holdout states seem to be considering is: will they profit from the gambling bonanza or miss out?

Legalization has spread like wildfire, and it may seem impossible to shut the industry down again, but our best chance is now. Every day that passes draws more people into the harmful industry and makes it appear more legitimate. We already know enough to know it’s wrong; the question is just how long we’ll take to act on what we know.

Online sports betting has gotten more predatory as it becomes more prevalent. Having a bookie in your pocket makes it harder to stick to self-imposed limits. Making a bet doesn’t require a trip outside the house to a casino; it’s just one or two clicks away from whatever you’re currently doing on your phone. With the benefits of big data sets, gambling companies tune their promotions to keep users returning, with customized offers, incentives and alerts. Every game is a chance for them to do trial-and-error tests to see what kind of gambler you are and what would make you bet again and bet bigger. 

Sports teams and broadcasters normalize betting by plastering ads across their stadiums and incorporating discussion of the betting odds into the analysis of plays. Gambling is increasingly positioned as just another part of being a fan. But painting your chest and screaming in the bleachers with your friends is a communal experience. Phone-based gambling is another invitation to turn away from the game, away from the friend next to you, away from the lively physicality of athletics. Instead, increasingly baroque prop bets (such as betting on the coin toss that starts the Super Bowl) slice the game into a series of abstract events, all with a real money cost.

NYT spent about a year investigating the sports betting industry. Here’s what it found
A growing vice

The industry is wildly lucrative for the book makers, but the states that opened the floodgates haven’t seen as much money as expected. The legislatures have let industry lobbyists help write the bills, exempting much of the betting companies’ revenue. In the most egregious sleight-of-hand, many gaming companies have the right to write off their promotional “risk-free” bets for tax purposes. These promotional offers promise to refund the cost of a first lost bet, but the money is not returned to the customer — it stays parked in the company coffers as a voucher for a next bet. There’s no way for a customer to walk away whole. 

States have been culpably credulous in writing the laws, but it isn’t enough to just tweak the taxation regime. Vice taxes only work if they sharply reduce the vice being taxed. It’s not the role of the state to simply make the vice more expensive and profit off of the premium.

Still worse is the approach that states have taken with online sports betting: the licensing and taxing regime has resulted in an explosion of gambling. States are hoping to expand the market so that their takings will be larger. 

It’s as though a state instituted a tax on adultery, and then began promoting websites like AshleyMadison and held press conferences with prostitution rings. By advertising invitations to unfaithfulness, the state would be hoping the private sins of their citizens could fill a hole in the public budget. The more money adultery brought into state coffers, the more a state would be caught in a perverse bind of its own making. If marriages got stronger, the state would be poorer.

A state that relies on gambling revenue is similarly reliant on worsening the lives of its citizens. It plans to fix crumbling infrastructure by eroding the financial stability of its families, to fill potholes by laying pits in the path of its people.

In 1999, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission released its final report on legalized gambling, and found that, “(V)irtually no state has conformed its decisions regarding gambling to any overall plan or even to its own stated objectives. In every state, gambling policy is more a collection of incremental and disconnected decisions than the result of deliberate purpose.”

Since then, states have only gone deeper into the hole. There’s no way to score a win — the only response to a rigged game is to quit. 

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.