The globe is littered meters deep with the debris from the unintended consequences of useful deeds, and so it shall be with legalized gambling.
Some things can be foreseen, like a likely rise in the number of gambleholics and the need to treat them. That is a public health issue, and our record on public health has been waning for some time now as we sadly transition to a “hey, you asked for it so don’t bother me” society.
But there is one that has not been raised in the euphoria of the Supreme Court ruling in Murphy v. NCAA, the lawsuit that ended for the moment the ban on legalized sports wagering in every state but Nevada, and unearths quite a different ethical and, weirdly, public relations concern.
Tanking, and the benefits thereof.
While there are those who have mentioned the benefit to the leagues of increased tip-to-buzzer interest in otherwise unappealing games – say, Sacramento Kings-Memphis Grizzlies – it has not been pointed out that there might be the possibility that both teams in that scenario might well be trying to lose the game at the mandate of their employer.
In other words, in a new world order where losing can be winning (see Hinkie, Sam, and Process, The), out-and-out game fixing can be considered shrewd business. After all, if it’s legal to try and lose and legal to bet on a team that wants to lose, what would prevent an owner or general manager who is already trying to manipulate results for an improved draft position to make some money on the side?
Based on the law, nothing.
There are rules in place in each league that prohibit employees (players, front office types, etc.) from gambling on games, of course, but employers? Employers tend to do what they please when they please because there is nobody save the Securities and Exchange Commission to stop them. As a hypothetical, if Mark Cuban, who is chosen here because he has openly spoken of his Dallas Mavericks tanking for the long-term good of his franchise, can seize upon purposeful losing as a wise business strategy despite its ethical shortcomings, legalized gambling allows him to profit more directly from losing on purpose, and with legalized gambling, it's all good in the neighborhood.
And who in the NBA can tell him that that is wrong? Certainly not Adam Silver, who works for Cuban in his capacity as a salaried employee. Certainly not his fellow owners, who might want to choose the same strategy if they have not already done so, and in any event are loath to tell their partner/competitors how to run their businesses.
In other words, one of the features of any new gambling law or laws would almost have to include a codicil that prevents performers and their employers from the legal act of wagering, and there would have to be ways to police that effectively.
Good luck with that last one.
Otherwise, we will have a sports landscape in which the Arnold Rothsteins will be inside the games themselves, and the veneer of trust that binds sports to its fans will become just another cynical joke.
This is by no means inevitable, of course; self-preservation based on wisdom may be underused as a tactic but it can be employed.
But the devil in all social legislation is in the details. We have focused on the number of ways in which the gambling pie will be divided up, all of them leading directly to the consumer, but we have ignored the more basic one that allows teams to profit from failure in the most tangible way of all – by manipulating results for direct profit.
If the lawmakers do not comprehend that in their drafting of bills, and if the sports owners do not understand the danger they invite if they do not honor a pledge never to wager on any teams in their sport, the games they sell can be perceived as nothing more than rolling scams, and scams have a short shelf life.
In the haste to get on the gambling gravy train, we all run the risk of watching our most lucrative form of entertainment eat itself by its entrepreneurs not being content with making their gambling money the old-fashioned way – by entering into deals with the bookmakers and letting other people be the suckers.