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  • Writer's pictureSky Moss

Upstate Geechie

Odds are you know something about gambling …

As March Madness wreaks havoc on brackets; bookies, apps, states and nations continue to accrue the financial benefits. Gambling is an ancient distraction/addiction/industry. Sumerians, Greeks, Indigenous North American groups shook stones. China for 3,000 years, at least. It has found artistic immortality in Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and many can sing the Kenny Rogers' classic in its entirety. Dice, playing cards, dominoes and backgammon have consumed and defined families.

In my youth gambling was everywhere and largely socially accepted. My father owned a bar in Elmira and I remember mornings where the numbers man would roll through. Dollar bills changed hands, pencil and notebook recorded the transaction and he was back on his bike to the next spot. OTB or Off Track Betting was another childhood memory. These dens of deviancy were located in strip malls and plazas. I never understood exactly what went on inside but the windows were tinted. My uncles and dad played the NYS lottery daily number for years. The three-digit was more popular but the four-digit saw love, too. That was where I learned the parlance, straight or boxed. At my high school, EFA (Elmira Free Academy), teachers and students gambled. A student was the point person. These were tickets that circulated during the week featuring college and pro football picks. The more games you picked, the more money you wagered, the more you could win. This was when I learned point spreads and over/unders. Gambling was both ubiquitous and invisible throughout by Elmira youth.

Pro sports have always faced legal and illegal gambling challenges, see Michael Jordan.

Recently Major League Baseball’s greatest star and property has been tied to this historic leisure activity. The American Journal of Sociology in a 1951 article by Herbert Bloch states, “Gambling emerges as a form of social pathology only when there is widespread resentment against it because of the psychological and social problems which it creates.”

Shohei Ohtani signed a $700,000,000 contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason. He is currently part of a federal and MLB investigation into illegal bets placed with a man named Mathew Bowyer, a former commodities trader and jujitsu studio owner. Ohtani’s longtime friend and former interpreter was apparently/allegedly the one directly betting. Ippei Mizuhara graduated high school in LA and found his way into the most visible translation gig on the planet. He followed Ohtani from the Los Angeles Angels to the Dodgers. The $4.5 million in payments he made to Bowyer for losses were traced to Ohtani. Multiple stories of the transcendent international superstar’s involvement have emerged. This includes at least two from Ohtani. Baseball fans immediately thought of the ‘Hit King’, Pete Rose.

On Aug. 23, 1989 Pete Rose accepted a lifetime ban from the game he dominated. Bart Giamatti gathered hundreds of hours of testimony from Rose’s gambling associates. It was an open secret amongst most. America’s pastime is steeped in gambling, most famously the 1919 World Series scandal that lead to the banishment of eight White Sox Players including Shoeless Joe Jackson. Gambling is not a baseball problem. It is a global epidemic that is spreading quickly amongst America’s young male population.

Gambling is a global epidemic spreading amongst America's young males. (Photo courtesy of Catherine White)

FanDuel was founded in Edinburgh, Scotland with roughly $1,200,000 in venture capital. This was the summer of 2009. The current owner, Flutter Entertainment was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange in January of this year. At the time this article was written, Flutter shares were trading at $202. The emergence of mobile, real-time, digital betting has created billions for investors and nightmares for parents and addiction experts. FanDuel did roughly $8,000,000,000 in NY last year and in December the state took in an all-time national record, $96,000,000 in tax revenue. ( Many young people I know have accounts and I have placed bets with them, $5.00 parlays. It has become a primary social activity for many young men and the ability to watch, bet, possibly win, receive payment all within minutes makes the digital scene dangerous and alluring.

Parlays and money lines are common vocabulary terms for this 16-30 demographic. Like all internet immediacy distractions/attractions, part of the danger and thrill is the 24/7 community. For many sports fans the dynamic went from following a team, to following a fantasy team, to betting on fantasy, to betting on individual statistics to half-time comeback bets. The descent, progression has only taken a decade.

When Keith Whyte, executive director at the National Council on Problem Gambling, asked a room of 40 17-year-old boys in Virginia earlier this year how many had a sports betting app on their phone, 36 hands rose. (The Guardian) The epidemic grows as states approve the mobile apps.

The celebrity of players like Ohtani and the advertising blitz with stars like Kevin Hart, Snoop Dog and Floyd “money” Mayweather appeals to young men. It makes gambling feel innocuous and commensurate with manhood. Social media is a natural conduit for popularizing the ‘pastime.’ Posting parlays that hit (rarely, why that shit is gambling) manifests an ecosystem of false come ups and baller lifestyle. It is a market too lucrative to disavow and yet conspicuous in its destructive resonance.

The major sports leagues are all negotiating direct or indirect deals that further entangle athletes and the likelihood of impropriety. NBA (2023-2024) champion Michael Porter Jr.’s brother was recently caught up while playing marginal minutes for the Toronto Raptors. Pro franchises in Las Vegas feel like natural opportunities for organized crime, legal betting and pro athletes to conspire comfortably. This will only grow.

While gambling is likely innately human, the promotion and democratization of the realm ensures major problems for American youth culture and our hallowed sports.

About the Author

Sky Moss is a Professor at SUNY Corning Community College. From gardening to music to clothing to politics, and sports, ask Sky and he will give you his opinion. Sky is multifaceted and his columns are always thought-provoking.


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