The Oakland Raiders’ impending move to Las Vegas has reignited debate about the legality of betting on sports. Most states ban betting schemes (although Nevada is an exception), and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell supports these bans. Other commissioners, like the NBA’s Adam Silver, oppose them. As for the general public, a 2011 study from Fairleigh Dickinson University shows that Americans are split on the issue. So, should we lift the bans or not?
The Paternalist Argument
As far as I can tell, the main arguments against legalizing betting are paternalistic: the state should ban gambling to protect gamblers from themselves. For instance, a ban could prevent gamblers from becoming addicted.
But outright prohibition is not the only way to address gambling addiction. For instance, some states offer self-exclusion programs, which enable people to voluntarily ban themselves from certain gambling activities. Gambling facilities must then refuse wagers from and deny gaming privileges to these people; facilities can even arrest self-excluded patrons for trespass if they enter the gambling floor.
What’s more, other activities like drinking alcohol present a considerable risk of addiction and yet remain legal. Rather than imposing a general ban on drinking, we take a more targeted approach and offer treatment to those particular people who suffer from an addiction (and ban drinking for minors, too). I see no reason to treat sports betting differently.
Your Money, Your Decision
Here’s a positive argument for legalizing sports betting: people generally have the right to spend their money as they see fit, so they should be allowed to spend their money on gambling. If you may spend your paycheck on a sports car to chase thrills, why aren’t you allowed to spend it betting on the Super Bowl for the same reason?
Alternatively, you could bet on sports in an attempt to make money. In this respect, betting on sports seems similar to other, perfectly legal activities. Someone who buys stock in General Motors is “betting” that the company will sell lots of cars, just as someone who puts money on the New England Patriots is betting that they’ll win the game.
Skill vs. Chance, Investing vs. Gambling
Maybe investing in the stock market is different than betting on the NBA playoffs because the proceeds of the latter are “predominantly subject to chance.” Suppose this is true — whether you win money from your bet on the Golden State Warriors is mostly a matter of luck, whereas whether you win money from your “bet” on General Motors is mostly a matter of skill.
Why should this matter when it comes to legality? The thought might be another paternalistic one: in games of chance, your odds of winning are “too low,” so the state must stop you from gambling away your money.
But people often have higher odds of winning games of chance than games of skill. Suppose a local pub charges a $100 entry fee for its dart contest. The winner receives $1,000. Darts is a game of skill, not luck. The trouble is, I don’t have the skill. So I have virtually no chance of winning. Crucially, I have a significantly lower chance of winning the dart contest than winning my bet on the NBA Finals (which hovers around 50%). It’s strange, then, that I may enter the dart contest but I may not bet on the NBA Finals.
Lastly, I may legally perform actions that have a 100% chance of financial loss, so why isn’t it legal to perform actions that only have, say, a 50% chance? For instance, I am within my rights to simply hand over $500 to Brooke the bookie as a birthday gift. So why may I not hand over $500 to Brooke when there is at least a chance that I’ll get some money back on a bet?
Of course, betting $500 on sports could be a bad idea. But then again, gifting Brooke the $500 could be a bad idea, too, and that’s perfectly legal. Even if sports betting is unwise, that’s not nearly enough to make it criminal.