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The Larger Costs Of The Explosion In Sports Gambling


The Supreme Court last week threw out a law that prevented most states from legalizing sports betting. And in the days since, state governments, gambling companies and sports networks have unveiled plans to take advantage of this. But those who fought to stop this ruling say it obscures a much bigger issue, the growing corrosive effects of state-sanctioned gambling. Les Bernal heads the reform group Stop Predatory Gambling. It led 30 organizations from across the political spectrum that filed a brief asking the court to keep limits on sports betting. Bernal told me these diverse groups are united by alarm over how government has led the gambling explosion.

LES BERNAL: What's happened over the last 35 to 40 years in this country is, state governments have continued to expand into more and more extreme forms of gambling. And today predatory gambling, what we'd describe as predatory gambling, when government uses gambling to promote it for profit, it now represents the public voice of government to most citizens through its advertising and marketing. But at the same time, 1 out of 2 Americans don't own any assets whatsoever. So here you have a government program encouraging citizens to lose all their cash, to lose their paychecks and their savings.

GREENE: What about the argument that the lotteries and other gaming raises really important revenue for states? I mean, I was looking up some of the numbers in Massachusetts. Local aid to more than 350 cities in that state, you know, through the state lottery is a billion dollars a year. I look at Texas. I mean, they've generated billions and billions of dollars in revenue for education, for veterans' services. I mean, isn't it an important source of revenue for a lot of states?

BERNAL: In order to get that revenue, the American people had to lose $117 billion of their savings on this government program. As a revenue source, state-sanctioned gambling is the ultimate budget gimmick. The entity in the United States doing the best research around government revenues from gambling is the Rockefeller Institute up at SUNY, Albany. And they consistently show that over the long term, state revenues from gambling, that they go down. Like, the only way you can sustain gambling revenues is you have to continue to bring in new and more extreme forms of gambling.

GREENE: And, we should say, race to the bottom is an important argument that you have made in relation to this Supreme Court case and others, that if states have the ability to allow sports gaming and other types of gambling, if one state does it, another state sort of feels the pressure to follow suit and it kind of has this ripple effect.

BERNAL: This isn't being driven by the merits. Like, no one stands up and says, this is a great idea to be selling $50 scratch tickets to our people, this is a great idea to be legalizing sports betting. For any of your listeners sitting there, well, isn't this the free market and aren't these guys entrepreneurs? Gambling interests operate with regional monopolies and states. None of us can go open up our own casino. This is the ultimate form of crony capitalism, and it's only legal if government is a partner to it.

GREENE: As passionately as you feel about this, haven't you lost the war in many ways? Not just one battle in the Supreme Court but, I mean, all these forms of state-backed gambling seem to be here to stay. They're growing. Is it even possible to put all this back in a box?

BERNAL: It's inevitable that state-sanctioned gambling is going to be dramatically reformed in the years ahead. There is no grassroots movement for commercialized gambling. Unlike other issues out there, the only people that benefit from this are the people that push for it. You know, ultimately, it's going to collapse onto itself. And any serious citizen out there who wants to improve opportunity for everyday Americans, you can't do those things if the public voice of your state governments is about go out and played these rigged games to get ahead and up in our society. Senator Elizabeth Warren and these other politicians stand up and say, you know, our system is rigged against everyday people. Government-sanctioned gambling is exhibit A in that regard. And if there was such public demand for it then why are they advertising billions of dollars a year to the American people?

GREENE: Les Bernal is the national director of the group Stop Predatory Gambling. Thanks so much.

BERNAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.