Winning Bets, Losing Your Soul: The Perils of Sports Gambling

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This article is part of a series called Sports Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and sports during March.

  • Over/under thirteen and a half holes in that Chick-Fil-A fry.

@HandshakeBets on TikTok has more than 220 thousand followers and almost 10 million likes on their TikToks. Their tagline in their bio: “Bet on anything.” Sports culture has shifted to include more and more viewer participation, but at what cost? Sports betting has existed for decades but the current rise has massive implications, not only individuals’ financial situations but also their formation as humans.

I realize I may sound like a local church curmudgeon when speaking against sports betting, but the issue is not rooted in a “don’t look like the culture” or “it’s the devil’s playground” argument. The issues connected to sports betting are against God’s desire for us in our formation as Christ followers.

Parlaying in Pop Culture

In an episode of Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer finds himself waiting in an airport terminal. A stranger turns to him talking about betting on flight delays. This simple bet has no real consequences. But Kramer knows he has an addiction. He resists and resists, and the audience is supposed to find this resistance humorous. What real harm could be done by him betting? At one point in the episode, Kramer owes the man thousands of dollars but wants to bet just a little more, so he uses someone else’s money to make a double or nothing bet.

This 1995 episode of Seinfeld is just one way in which pop culture adopted this conversation of sports betting. In The Last Dance, the audience gets a glimpse of Michael Jordan’s gambling obsession. He begins betting with one of the Bulls’ security guards while “pitching pennies.” It becomes obvious to the viewers that Jordan is so competitive that he’s willing to bet on just about anything.

Possibly the most notorious occurrence of betting gone wrong is in the case of Pete Rose. The famous hit king of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” era was found to have bet on several occasions. The only issue is that he bet on Major League Baseball, the league where he was playing, coaching, and making a living. This went against the rules of the league and he is now permanently ineligible to make it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The highs felt when winning a bet make the lows even greater.

The Rise Today

Sports betting used to be an object of humor, or something at the fringes of sports. But one glance at ESPN will tell you things have changed. In the past, the “BottomLine” that rolls across the bottom of the screen showed game updates, final scores, and any big news that was occurring. Now, the constant feed shows what the betting lines are for the upcoming games. Who’s favored? By how much? Not only is the line present in the “BottomLine,” but sports networks schedule segments and whole shows dedicated to discussing betting strategy for that week’s games. The push towards sports betting is almost inescapable.

The push can be subtle. Many have noted the introduction to sports betting that games like Fantasy Football help encourage. Many sports betting companies have pumped these avenues for fan interaction with funding so that it can lead to a desire to gamble on the games featuring “their players.” In addition to Fantasy Football, sports betting companies have sponsored a vast majority of sports podcasts and sports YouTube channels to get a foot in the door for those listening and watching. And these efforts have not been in vain. The sports betting industry has become a massive industry generating billions of dollars of revenue. In 2022, estimates suggest the industry generated almost $84 billion.

The Fall Tomorrow

The presence of sports betting is increasingly impossible to ignore. Here are several ways in which sports betting is de-forming us as humans.

1. The highs felt when winning a bet make the lows even greater.

Psychologists could speak much better to this than I, but this nature of addiction is pivotal to understand. When someone wins a bet, their brain releases dopamine. At first, a small $5 bet will create a great sensation, leaving you wanting more of that same feeling. Eventually enough $5 bets will lose its luster, so you’ll increase your bets to feel that same dopamine high you used to feel. And this process goes on. The lows are not felt when you lose as much as when you’re not betting. The ability to identify when to stop becomes diluted to the point of not existing.

In other words, sports betting is forming us away from Christlikeness God made us in certain ways to be able to identify when to stop and when to feel remorse. And ultimately, our joy was not intended to come from a properly placed bet but from Christ. Christ must be ultimate, and all other things must be of lower importance and value.

2. Sports betting is a disembodied reality.

We are embodied creatures. God designed us to be in relationship with others and interacting with His created world. But sports betting and online interaction as a whole picks us up out of the embodied realm and situates us in a disconnected realm. The one who places bets isn’t on the team he’s betting for. Neither is he a coach, the team’s owner, or sometimes even a fan of the team. God’s mandate at creation to humanity was to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Don’t let sports betting be a roadblock to our embodied purpose given to us at creation.

3. The ability to have community can suffer.

Sports betting is not merely an internal battle of the mind and desires. It also impacts your relationships. As you waste time watching Division 3 football teams play one another, you probably have more pressing matters to do — or people to interact with. As creation, not only were we given the mandate, we were given relationship with other humans. This disembodied reality bleeds into our inability to have deep and thick community.

4. The financial risk taken points towards poor stewardship.

Poor stewardship may be the most obvious risk of sports betting. Clearly, someone losing all their life savings on betting is remarkably unwise. But even in the little bets, we are risking our ability to be good stewards. One may argue, “Well if I win this bet, I’ll be able to tithe more.” But that’s not God’s vision for stewardship. And what if you lose the bet? The monetary gain is not worth the loss of worshiping God with your money.

In addition, sports betting also reflects a poor stewardship of our time. Our time is valuable. People inside and outside the Church recognize that. Why misuse the time God has given you for the purpose of possible self-gain?

It’s Personal

You may be wondering, “Why does Gabe care so much about this?” Well, it’s personal. I’ve had friends lose community, lose their desire to worship God, lose their ability to properly steward their time and money due to sports betting. I’ve seen close family members captivated by gambling. Any addiction is crippling. It can seem like there is no way out. Worship of anything besides God, even a sports book, is detrimental to us as humans.

But I also care about this topic because we need to look forward. Sports betting isn’t slowing down. The companies know who to target, especially young men. Let’s not let a simple bet on a game break through our sober-mindedness. Let’s push forward to pursue God, not gambling.

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Gabe Magan

Dancer Fellow

Gabe Magan is the Dancer Fellow of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Gabe also works for the N.C. Baptist State Convention as Executive Assistant for Convention Relations. He and his wife are members and serve at the Summit Church in Raleigh, NC. He enjoys reading good books, drinking great coffee and being mediocre at golf.

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