Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

A recently introduced bill that would legalize sports gambling in Kentucky (HB 551), is being pushed by bill sponsor State Rep. Michael Meredith (R-Oakland) and Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown.)  Both underscored the popularity of the issue on KET’s Kentucky Tonight. According to a 2022 survey conducted by Western Kentucky University, 73% of respondents favor sports betting. Altogether, 36 states have legalized sports gambling. Both legislators argued that Kentucky is losing revenue to surrounding states that have legalized it. So why not legalize it and capture the revenue? But bigger considerations loom that few have considered as the state legislature ponders this perennial question. 

Widespread sports gambling outside Las Vegas is fairly new. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1992 federal law that restricted it in most states, so the social consequences of widespread sports gambling remain to be seen. But based on past history, we have an idea of how this will turn out.

Legitimizing and mainstreaming sports gambling will hurt Kentuckians in three ways. First, it corrupts the integrity of sporting events. Second, it will likely accelerate addictive behavior. And finally, sports gambling will unduly affect our children by introducing them to a highly addictive behavior with a mobile device. Consider that we’ve had a number of scandals related to players throwing games or referees fixing them. The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team lost its 1952-53 season because its players were involved in a point shaving scandal. In 2008, NBA referee Tim Donaghy spent time in jail for taking bribes to fix games he refereed. Most recently, rumors swirled around that last year’s FIFA World Cup soccer championship game was rigged. An investigative body couldn’t confirm the rumors, but Sports Illustrated exposed past corruption inside FIFA in a 2019 article “7 of the Most Infamous Match Fixing Scandals That Shook World Football.” Bribery of officials, players, and coaches involved with gambling-related match fixing is well documented.

In 2021, The Atlantic ran a story entitled “Sports Gambling Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen: Betting on Tom Brady’s next completion may sound like harmless fun. But it’s not.” Author Will Leitch presciently said, “People will forgive a lot in sports. But they do have to believe that the results are legitimate. Without that, the games are meaningless—a sinister chaos.”

Another concern over legalizing sports gambling is that it would likely accelerate addictive behavior. We are not just talking about betting on the outcome of sporting events. But there is in-game betting, where gamblers can bet on plays in real time with their phone in hand. Exhilarating, yes. Compelling, definitely. But should lawmakers neglect the dark side of a potentially addictive activity to everyone with a smartphone—an activity previously confined to physical locations? Once Draft Kings or Fanduel Apps are on user’s phone, and the game is over, gamblers can expect ads for video poker, video blackjack, and sundry other games.

Rep. Meredith argued that there are control structures to prosecute corruption and potential bribery. But how do regulators monitor in-game bets? How does one keep cash-strapped college athletes from taking a hundred bucks to strike out or miss a free throw that would not easily be detected?

Finally, how will mainstreaming sports gambling affect our children? How does one keep teenage boys off of gambling apps? Their pre-frontal cortex, not fully developed, lacks impulse control and cannot discern the consequences of present actions. Normalizing gambling to kids, many of whom will be ensnared in its throes, should be of great concern to all of us.

The tide of gambling expansion is pushing strong in the Commonwealth. But do we jeopardize the social and economic fabric of the Commonwealth we so love by current trends and desires and opinion polls? Is expanded gambling a healthy way to build our economy? Is it a reliable revenue stream? And will it build communities in a way that benefits all? These are questions that deserve answers.