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Gambling on baseball raises questions

by BENJAMIN HOCHMAN ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH | December 2, 2020 at 2:48 a.m.

Kids -- as recently as 2009, or in the Pete Rose days of 1989, or even back in the Black Sox days of 1919 -- were told that betting on baseball was bad.

It was illegal. It was precarious. And for ballplayers and team employees who did it, well, it could be career-threatening.

But now, betting on baseball is going to be part of baseball. It's going to be part of Major League Baseball broadcasts, and while this was inevitable, it still makes me uncomfortable.

Fox Sports Midwest and other regional networks owned by Sinclair Broadcasting are teaming up with Bally's Corporation in efforts to have interactive sports gambling during broadcasts.

Many, many people are extremely excited about this. Gambling on sports already is commonplace, and now it'll be at your fingertips, in real time and already legal in some places. You'll likely be able to bet on outcomes of games and even innings or at-bats. It will be tempting for so many people, and for some, irresistible.

But watching a baseball telecast always has been an almost sacred experience -- and the baseball broadcast always was a safe place, especially for those watching with their kids, spending quality time with them and teaching them about the great game. And eventually, the Cardinals' broadcast itself eventually won't just be promoting gambling, but encouraging it. Just instead of Joe Camel or Spuds MacKenzie endorsing a vice, it'll be something or someone during the Cardinals broadcast.

Clearly, innumerable Americans have casually bet on sports since the dawn of baseball. And many people can gamble occasionally, or even often, and do so responsibly.

Others can't. An addiction to gambling can ruin a person. It can shatter a family. Its effects are terrifying.

Even those who aren't addicted can get in over their heads with bets. It's suffocating -- gambling has the virtual effects of a natural disaster, destroying your personal finances and home and way of life. And having on-screen graphics to entice midgame gambling means that, in years to come, there will be more new gamblers than before. And that means a percentage of new losing gamblers, too. And that's disheartening and heartbreaking.

Yes, of course, there are contradictions. In St. Louis, much of our baseball culture is based on beer. For generations, families have descended on a stadium named after a beer brand. Inside, kids bobbed their heads along to beer jingles by the stadium organist and cheered on the Clydesdales made famous in beer commercials. There were beer ads everywhere -- and beer everywhere. But it was just part of the experience.

So one could ask -- if you're cool with drinking infiltrating baseball, why not gambling? A couple of beers at the game or a couple bets on the game, what's the difference or the big deal with either?

And these are fair arguments. But we cannot predict how the gambling will turn out.

But one thinks of the parents having to explain it to their kids during Cardinals games.

"Dad, what's this fun thing on the screen where you can guess what you think will happen? Can I play it on my phone?"

And the dad says, "No you can't, even though it does seem fun and they're sure making it enticing to you and your video-game generation. But once you're of legal age, then yeah, you can do it, though I'd really prefer it if you didn't bet your hard-earned money on something you can't control."

These conversations could become awkward or uncomfortable.

But that's reality. I'm not trying to be naive about it. Legal sports gambling is the next generation of the fan experience. It's happening.

And it's time for families to decide how to discuss it.


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