America, place your bets: US Supreme Court opens the door for nationwide sports betting

Thomas Raymen, Plymouth University

On 14th May 2018, the US Supreme Court made a ruling that has essentially opened the gateway for the nationwide legalization of sports betting. The decision struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a federal law made in 1992 banning sports betting. Within hours of the ruling, the prices of shares in UK-based bookmakers such as Paddy Power Betfair, who are deep into socialized forms of app-based remote sports-betting, rose by 10.4%; while 888Holdings share price spiked 14% (BBC News, 2018). 

Immediate responses to the ruling from the major sports leagues in the US have all cited a desire to ‘protect the integrity of our game’; while the talking heads on sports network talk shows have expressed concerns around corruption and match-fixing. This is a product of the image of gambling’s longstanding relationship with organized crime in America’s popular imagination, aided by real gambling scandals such as the Boston College point-shaving scandal orchestrated by individuals within and connected to the Lucchese crime family. However, the effect on the end-user appeared to be somewhat of an afterthought on these shows; with ESPN sportswriter Pablo Torres discussing the embedded nature of gambling within the collective social psyche and the paradoxically anticlimactic atmosphere surrounding what will be a momentous ruling, both financially and for American sports.

Seldom has a radical transformative change felt so normal and routine. That’s what is funny about this moment […] We have been preparing for this for so long that now it feels like the sports institutions are actually the last ones to get hip to the culture. There is no moral panic about this […] the stock market is betting. This is capitalism! […] I see that a lot of people will lose a lot of money. This is going to result in many sports fans probably becoming addicted to something and losing a lot of money because of that. But we’re all OK about that.

—Pablo Torres on Around the Horn, ESPN, 14/05/2018.

Perhaps Torres’ flippancy could be tempered by looking to the UK sports betting context for what might be on the horizon. In the overall global context, nations have tended to make the move toward the legalization and deregulation of the gambling industry. In the UK in 2007, the introduction of the Gambling Act 2005 effectively liberalized the industry by lifting restrictions on the TV advertising of sports betting (among other gambling mediums). This has prompted a 600% increase in gambling advertising (Ofcom, 2013) and broadcasters spending £456billion on gambling advertisement between 2012 and 2015. UK punters lost a record £13.8 billion in 2016, a number that has been rising since 2011; while  research by Raymen and Smith (2017) into what they term ‘lifestyle gambling’ has explored the extent to which sports betting has become an integral and culturally embedded feature of existing social spheres and leisure arenas such as the Night-Time Economy (Deans et al, 2017). As technology has spatially flexibilised sports-betting and moved it into the domestic and social environs of the living room, the pub, or the football stadium, it has also become a fundamental element of social spheres and attached to fragile forms of cultural capital and leisure identity. As Raymen and Smith (2017) have witnessed, this attachment of gambling to lifestyle and identity, not to mention its immediacy on smart phones which also contain apps for casualised access to debt, has resulted in significant levels of indebtedness, mental health issues, and relationship breakdown.

However, this is not what has intrigued me about the early coverage It is the language that has been used to justify and defend the SCOTUS ruling, and it is an issue which highlights the incoherence and uncertainty of contemporary moral discourse which is essential for any critical social science that is going to place notions of social harm at its core. The ruling stated that by banning sports betting, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 ‘unconstitutionally intruded’ onto the affairs of the individual states by dictating what the states can and cannot legislate upon. This, of course, is a victory for liberalism which views society as an arena in which individuals all pursue their own privately defined version of the Good life. Under liberalism, government and the law ought to be entirely neutral in asserting what the Good life is or should be for individuals. To have a say in such matters is seen as unbearably oppressive and the slippery road to totalitarianism. Governments should simply stand back and get on with the business of efficiently facilitating whatever individuals define their own version of the Good life to be. This is a perspective that has become so dominant within the social sciences that it is hard to see beyond it. For the liberal right, this ruling will be seen as an unshackling of the free market. For the liberal left’s own anti-statism, this will be hailed as a step forward in ending the ‘stigma’ surrounding gambling, and freeing people to pursue their own individually-defined desires. In the same breath, needing to preserve its credentials as concerned with the welfare of the vulnerable, the progressive liberal individualist will also express concerns about industry advertising, who is targeted, and where betting shops are placed. Such is the incoherence and uncertainty of liberalism’s own moral philosophy.  As Millbank and Pabst (2016) have noted, this marriage of the economic liberalism of the right with the socio-cultural liberalism of the ‘left’ is the story of contemporary capitalism.

Of course, the idea of a ‘morally neutral’ government and law is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. It certainly results in an element of moral relativism, but also a more manipulative will-to-power, what Alasdair Macintyre (2011) describes as a culture of emotivism. Powerful individuals, organizations and corporations can, in an act of special liberty, claim the right to pursue their own privately-defined Good irrespective of its impact on others in the name of some vague utilitarian argument of the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number’—a scenario in which they also get to unilaterally define what constitutes happiness. It is precisely this aversion to the State having any say on establishing a moral consensus of the social Good that, in an age of capitalist realism (Fisher, 2009), precludes an ability to transcend the existing state of affairs or establish any moral or ethical consensus on which we can base a notion of social harm.

The United States of America is a nation founded on the moral philosophy of liberal individualism; enshrined within the Declaration of Independence as the ‘unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the (individually-defined) pursuit of happiness’. To change this would require the United States to change the very fabric of its existence, something which is unlikely to happen any time soon. However, the US Supreme Court ruling brings back to the foreground some of the fundamental questions and tensions that criminologists and social harm scholars often avoid asking: what constitutes the Good life? What is the role of the State in determining any particular moral or ethical outlook on the social Good? And lastly, how can we use a conceptualization of the Good life as the basis for establishing the parameters of social harm?


BBC News (2018) ‘US Ruling opens way for states-wide sports betting’. Available online:

Deans, E., Thomas, S., Daube, M., and Derevensky, J. (2017) The role of peer influences on the normalisation of sports wagering: a qualitative study of Australian men, Addiction Research & Theory, 25:2, 103-113, DOI: 10.1080/16066359.2016.1205042

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Winchester. Zero Books.

Macintyre, A. [1981] (2011) After Virtue. London. Bloomsbury.

Milbank, J. and Pabst, A. (2016) The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future. London. Rowman and Littlefield.

Ofcom (2013) Trends in advertising activity – Gambling. Available at:  (accessed 26 November 2016).

Raymen, T. and Smith, O. (2017) ‘Lifestyle Gambling, Indebtedness and Anxiety: A Deviant Leisure Perspective’. Journal of Consumer Culture. doi. 10.1177/1469540517736559

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