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A Nation of Online Gamblers

It happened almost unnoticed, and completely unopposed.

I would be lying if I said I had never placed a bet on a sporting event. Indeed, I have made multiple wagers every week during football season for the past several years. My worst loss, in September 2018, was my then-shoulder-length hair. (I managed to recoup the next year, however, when Michigan beat Notre Dame 45-14.) On other occasions I have had repeated smaller losses, including a disastrous run during last year’s NFL playoffs, during which I found myself buying my maternal grandfather four consecutive large milkshakes despite the best efforts of (to take them in reverse order) Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and that Heineken kid. I will spare my own dignity by not explaining how my wife managed to win our intra-household picks league last year.

Still, despite my love of this kind of action, I can honestly say that the idea of putting real money—anything more than $20 or a pack of cigarettes or some point of honor whose monetary value is difficult to assess—on a game has never appealed to me. Increasingly I get the sense that I am alone in this feeling. I sometimes think I am the only person in the United States who has noticed that in the space of a single year, legalized online gambling has completely taken over college and, especially, professional football. Live odds now scroll across the bottom of the screen during broadcasts; every other commercial is for a sportsbook. Fox incorporates advertisements for its own online gambling app seamlessly into its coverage of games, and the NFL itself has partnered with four separate bookmaking operations. Meanwhile, even someone like Drew Brees, with his squeaky-clean flag-respecting family man image, apparently doesn’t think twice about endorsing online gambling.

Who thought this was a good idea, I wonder? Years ago I posed this question to a libertarian acquaintance who insisted that legalization would save people from mobbed-up kneecap-breaking bookies. Well, I mean, really. Thank goodness that people in the wilds of rural Michigan placing prop bets from their toilets on Tuesday night MAC games no longer live in fear of Rocco and Moose. Do these people live in the real world, in which I think I can say with confidence that a tiny fraction of Americans has ever been anywhere near an underground sports gambling operation?

The almost instantaneous approbation of sports gambling is of a piece with the legalization of cannabis and, indeed, of online casino gambling in many states, including Michigan, where it is now possible to play roulette, blackjack, and poker at 3: 00 a.m. for real money no matter where you live as long as you have a credit card and a smartphone. All of this took place almost overnight, with virtually no debate—indeed, in Michigan online gambling was approved at the height of last year’s lockdown mania.

Here it is worth mentioning that the transformation of every home in more than two dozen states into a gambling den has not been meaningfully resisted by either of our two main political parties. To the extent that there has been any political opposition, it has come from lawmakers in the pockets of the casinos, who offered their assent only when it became clear that this was another possible revenue stream. (I wonder what kind of person trusts the “odds” offered by a digital roulette wheel he is watching in his underwear?)

I would very much like to know in what sense the GOP can be considered a “socially conservative” party when its default response to novel forms of vice is to say, “As long as it makes money!” This battle has been lost forever—no state that has approved online gambling will be at liberty to change its mind now that the returns have begun flowing back to the venture capitalists who made it all possible.

My question now is where it ends.

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.

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