We’re still far enough from the mid-term elections that campaigns haven’t gone into turbocharge mode. But if you’re a California resident and watch any television at all (my exposure is perhaps half an hour per day), you’ve been pummeled non-stop since April by political commercials featuring Native American tribespeople. It’s insane.
At stake is the future of sports gambling in the state. Proposition 26 would legalize sports betting at Native American-owned casinos and at race tracks. It is (naturally) endorsed by Native American tribes that own casinos. Proposition 27 would legalize sports betting on-line. It is supported by Native American tribes that do not own casinos, because a carve-out in the proposition provides funding for them and for state-supported efforts to reduce homelessness.
So for months we’ve been subjected to a flood of commercials juxtaposing dignified, hopeful members of casino-owning tribes with dignified, forlorn members of casinoless tribes, each minimizing, even omitting, what’s actually at stake: whether the state should legalize sports betting at all and, if so, whose pockets the kejillions of dollars thereby spent (and lost) should go into.
I totally sympathize with Native Americans and agree they need more support. I have no problem with them making money from casinos. But I do have a problem with these propositions.
The first comes from the perspective of sports integrity. Not that college and professional athletics have ever been pristine, but legalized betting on such a massive scale all but guarantees corruption. Just as, in the far more important realm of politics, we’ve forgotten the terrible lessons about authoritarianism from the 1930s and 1940s, we’re now betraying cultural amnesia about the betting scandals that plagued sports into the 1950s, the most famous of which was the World Series dive taken by the 1919 Chicago White Sox. One of the nicest things about going to NYU was that it didn’t have any NCAA Division I sports teams. The reason it didn’t was because its once dominant men’s basketball team had been enmeshed in criminal point-shaving scandals for years, forcing the athletics program to be dismantled in 1961.
The second comes from the perspective of wealth inequality. Proposition 26 would funnel the obscene profits of California’s sports betting into just a few hands. The fact that those hands belong to members of a long-suffering minority does not change sin into virtue. Proposition 27 is even worse, as it would funnel the obscene profits of California’s sports betting to huge out-of-state corporations. The funding those corporations are tossing to low-revenue tribes and homelessness is a sop. I lived in the Atlantic City, New Jersey area around the time it legalized gambling. The gambling interests promised a municipal revival. More than forty years later the casinos prosper, but the town is in as bad shape as ever. Evidently that’s typical. But few California voters know how little gambling does for the local community — it’s not in either campaign’s interest to talk about that.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the campaigns for and against these two ballot propositions have raised $362 million, which explains why even minimal TV watchers like me feel bombarded by ads. The previous spending record was $220 million on a measure to overturn the California law making gig workers employees, which, sadly, succeeded. (Thanks, Uber.)
Right now I’m strongly inclined to vote against both measures. Californians already have legal opportunities to gamble: those aforementioned Native American casinos plus a state lottery. And, not being a gambler myself, I fail to understand the attraction. Gambling isn’t “action.” For the bettors it’s quite sedentary. Nor is gambling “entertainment.” Entertainment is an escape from everyday life, whereas gambling is an immersion in everyday life’s worst aspects: pre-occupation with money, status, and materiality; torrents of hype and false promises; fleeting highs and extended hangovers. There’s no sense in banning it, but there’s even less sense in encouraging it.