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VOL. 130 | NO. 20 | Friday, January 30, 2015

Sports Betting 'Socially Acceptable' on Super Bowl Sunday

By Don Wade

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The statement seems self-evident. Whether you just fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket in the office pool every year, make a bet on the Super Bowl, or buy the occasional scratch-off lottery ticket.

Prop bets are displayed above the crowd before the start of Super Bowl XLVII in the sports book at Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas in 2013. More than $100 million will be wagered on this year’s Super Bowl and nearly $4 billion when including illegal betting.

(AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Chase Stevens)

“The thing about gambling is, the more you gamble the more you lose. But you will win. Everybody wins sometimes.”

Those words come from James Whelan, co-director at The Institute for Gambling Education and Research at the University of Memphis. Whelan, by the way, figured there was a good chance he would be at a Super Bowl party on Sunday, Feb. 1. Not that he was going to bet on it.

“No, I’m mostly there for the food,” he said.

But as a society, Super Bowl Sunday is America’s biggest sports betting day of the year. If this year’s legal betting action is similar to last year’s, there will be about $100 million bet on, and around, the NFL’s championship football game. That pales, however, to the expected $3.8 billion that will be wagered illegally, according to the American Gaming Association.

The bets, of course, can take many forms. Straight-up on the Seattle Seahawks or New England Patriots. Betting the point spread of the game or the over/under on points scored.

And then there are the “prop” bets, everything from betting the over/under on how long it will take Idina Menzel to sing the National Anthem to the color of Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s hoodie, and even whether Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch will grab his crotch after scoring a touchdown.

“In Memphis, there are probably very few New England fans or Seattle fans,” Whelan said. “So how do you make the game more interesting other than waiting for the commercials? You put in some action.”

Roughly three-fourths of the population has made some sort of wager – it could be as simple as a soda riding on the flip of a coin – in the last year, Whelan says. And most of the wagering on the Super Bowl will be illegal, including (technically) your sheet of squares at your Super Bowl party.

“Sports betting is illegal, but more socially acceptable” than many other forms of gambling, Whelan said.

Big-picture, this traditionally has caused concern with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and NCAA. Not that these entities wish sports gambling to go away; their games’ popularity benefits. But there is always the fear that a player, coach or official could be a risk if he develops a gambling problem.

This is why Pete Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, why rumors persist about the real reason Michael Jordan suddenly decided to play minor-league baseball, and why all the leagues shutter at the mention of former NBA ref Tim Donaghy, who was sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison camp for taking money from a professional gambler in exchange for tips on games he refereed.

Yet NBA commissioner Adam Silver last year wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times promoting legal sports betting on a broad scale.

More amazing is what Donaghy then told the New York Daily News: “I truly believe that at some point they’re going to have kiosks in every NBA arena, like they do at the airport when you get your boarding pass, so you can bet on the games.”

Such a possible reality sends a chill through Arnie Wexler, co-author of “All Bets are Off.” Wexler, now 77, has been a recovering compulsive gambler for 46 years. He bet everything from preseason baseball games to hockey games with a bookie when he didn’t even know what a puck was.

He has had a role in educating tens of thousands of casinos workers about the threat of gambling addiction and once helped a retired NFL kicker get into a 12-step gambling recovery program. In the 1980s, he says, the NBA asked him to conduct meetings in Atlanta and Denver on the risks of compulsive gambling but when he was approached by an ESPN crew about an interview he was told he couldn’t do it.

“They never used me again,” Wexler said of the NBA.

In his book, Wexler said he wouldn’t be surprised if college basketball one day had another point-shaving scandal. More than 30 years ago, a Boston College basketball player was linked to the mob and served more than two years in prison for shaving points.

Authorities regularly speak to pro and college players before the start of their seasons about such dangers. Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley says the BC incident was mentioned to players when he was at Ohio State.

“Anybody is vulnerable,” Conley said. “Some guys, you worry about alcohol and the drugs. And there are people addicted to gambling and people addicted to worse things.”

Yet by the numbers, Whelan says, gambling addiction is rare. Maybe two percent of the population. And in a study of college athletes, he says many fewer of them reported gambling in the last year (35 percent) than did the general student population (68 percent).

Gambling’s basic allure?

“It gets people away from their lives,” Whelan said.

And gives them a chance to win. You know, depending on what Marshawn Lynch does.

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