A loud lament over the latest gambling embrace by state leaders
Lawrence’s Les Bernal says we’re just expanding state-sanctioned exploitation
THERE WERE WHOOPS AND HOLLERS from DraftKings, the state’s casinos, and lawmakers as the state legalized sports betting earlier this month. For Les Bernal, it was not a moment to celebrate, but instead marked a new low in how far Massachusetts would go to draw in revenue by exploiting those most vulnerable to the addictive pull of gambling.
For more than two decades, Bernal has been sounding the alarm over what he calls “the big con” of legalized gambling, a revenue stream that he said states turned to in order to fund basic services with the gambling losses of those who can least afford the hit. Bernal, a 53-year-old Lawrence resident, is national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a Washington-based nonprofit aimed at exposing and stopping the proliferation of legalized gambling.
In the language of the industry it’s out to stop, the group has not exactly been on a roll.
One state after another has jumped into the casino business, and sports betting has now quickly followed as the latest layer in what Bernal says is little more than government-sanctioned exploitation of states’ most vulnerable residents.
While the state engaged in a vigorous debate before finally legalizing casinos in 2011, the battle over sports betting seemed to come down to whether to include college games or not. (The final bill allows that, but not on most Massachusetts collegiate games.) The idea that the state would ultimately open the door to sports gambling in some form was hardly in doubt.
“They got a free ride,” said Bernal.
He said sports gambling has spread with lightning speed since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a federal law that had effectively banned it. Boston’s major sports teams all backed the move, and major media entities have a stake in the action as well. The Associated Press, for example, struck a deal with FanDuel, an online sports betting company, to exclusively cite its odds in all its sports reporting.
Despite promises that Massachusetts would be particularly attentive to the issue of problem gambling, the Globe reported earlier this week that the last state report on the prevalence of problem gambling was released in 2015 – the same year a slots facility opened in Plainville and before either of the state’s full casinos had opened.
Though an update of the report is in the works, Bernal said it will only obfuscate the real nature of the problem. Problem gambling studies done by states tend to report the overall prevalence of the problem. The 2015 report said 2 percent of Massachusetts adults had a gambling problem, similar to national averages in other studies.
But the real question, said Bernal, is what share of the revenue casinos – and states – bring in comes from problem gamblers. An extensive body of research pegs that number at anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of gambling revenue, Bernal said.
Though casino operators insist they want to keep out those with gambling addictions – and similar statements are being made about the sports betting that will soon be underway here – Bernal says that’s nonsense. Those with gambling problems are “central to the business model,” he said. “They’re the backbone of the industry.”
With sports betting, Bernal predicted that gambling addiction will move from something disproportionately suffered by lower-income residents to a more widespread problem among the middle class, with young people particularly vulnerable.
“You have 17-year-olds walking into Gamblers Anonymous in New Jersey,” he said. New Jersey moved within weeks of the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to legalize sports betting.It’s all part of what Bernal said has been a broader change in the country’s culture as people have increasingly struggled to gain a foothold into the middle class. We’ve moved from the idea of thrift and long-term financial planning to a desperate, go-for-broke mentality to try to strike it big, he said.
“When I was a kid we used to encourage people to buy savings bonds,” he said, recalling that the certificates were often given to children as gifts. “Now you have grandparents giving kids scratch tickets for the holidays.”