Sports Gambling: The Costs, Benefits and Ethical Implications of Legalization

February 7, 2020

Last spring, Jason Kwak ’21 (Public Policy Studies) and Neelesh Pandey ’21 (Political Science) received a Bass Connections Student Research Award to examine the ethics and economics of sports betting. Their project expanded the work of the Cheating, Gaming and Rule-fixing team, which explored different institutional approaches to compliance with the rules and norms of fair play. Wayne Norman serves as their faculty mentor.

Jason Kwak and Neelesh Pandey
Jason Kwak and Neelesh Pandey at the Bass Connections Showcase in April 2019 (Photo: Kelley Bennett)

By Jason Kwak and Neelesh Pandey

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Murphy that each individual state has the sole power to legalize sports gambling within its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court’s ruling paved the way for the legalization of sports gambling in large swathes of the country. Multiple states have since legalized sports gambling, and many others are following suit.

Revenue streams have been cited as the major factor by every state that is interested in legalizing sports gambling. The initiative will undoubtedly bring in millions of dollars in revenue all across the country. However, a “first past the post” mentality has become pervasive in state legislatures everywhere.

In their rush to legalize and stake a claim on potential revenue, states are not performing their due diligence on the far-reaching implications of legalization. In some cases, states are considering underperforming sports gambling frameworks due to unacknowledged conflicts of interest. Even more egregious, however, is the fact that states have not established precautionary measures or clear accountability mechanisms with respect to the various harms that legalization of sports gambling is bound to cause.

This past summer, we were offered the opportunity to conduct research on sports gambling legislation through the Bass Connections Student Research Award. We decided to spend a month in Washington, D.C., to learn more about the involvement of four different groups in this particular legislative process: policymakers, lobbyists, university athletics compliance directors and “problem gambling” advocacy leaders.

We interviewed 15 people (based in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.) across these four different groups. We asked them pertinent questions about the costs, benefits and ethical implications of sports gambling legislation for the groups and organizations they represent.

Our findings show the following: policymakers and lobbyists nationwide are pushing to legalize sports gambling in the pursuit of public and private revenue. The NCAA is inadequately prepared for this change; it did not institute changes to its student-athlete education programs in a prompt manner, and the quality of implementation is yet to be seen. A large portion of the burden of protecting the integrity of college sports has now fallen on universities, which are ill-equipped to handle the problem. Furthermore, problem gambling advocacy groups are particularly concerned about sports gambling’s effects on young people, who are vulnerable to problem gambling due to the advent of mobile and online sports gambling avenues.

As college students on Duke’s campus, we are familiar with both sides of the equation: constant exposure to sports as well as easy access to online gambling platforms. Thus, we are uniquely positioned to conduct research on this relevant topic. Our summer research experience was a fantastic way for us to take initiative on an issue we care about. Additionally, it gave us experience working in a professional environment. We plan on conducting extensive analysis and further data collection over the next few months and hope to publish our original work on this issue in the future.

Learn More