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Should Michigan legalize sports gambling?

May 17, 2018

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law giving Nevada a monopoly over legal sports gambling. And there were immediately voices clamoring to legalize it here.

They argued that the state would get more tax revenue as a result, and that it would boost tourism. Well, the tourism part sounds dubious to me, but I can easily believe that there is tax revenue in it. But will it be worth what it does to people?

Here’s a little story worth considering: They tore down Detroit’s iconic Tiger Stadium at the beginning of this decade, and for a while, all that remained was a vacant lot, tended by a group of boosters who called themselves the Navin Field Ground Crew.

But now the Police Athletic League has taken over the site, and built a lovely little mini-field with a building where one can have receptions and watch kids play.

And I was there last night to mark the publication of a fascinating book: The Booster, whose subtitle is "How Ed Martin, the Fab Five, and the Ballers from the Hood Exposed the Hypocrisy of a Billion-Dollar Industry."

University of Michigan basketball fans remember, all too well, how basketball booster Ed Martin befriended players and provided them with hundreds of thousands in cash from illegal gambling proceeds. The scandal came to light in the late 1990s, and Michigan’s basketball program was sanctioned and severely impacted for years.

Martin eventually pled guilty to a felony, but died before he could be sentenced. This book is an effort by his son, Carl Martin, and noted journalist Jim McFarlin, to tell the true story of his father’s life. I haven’t had a chance to read much of it.

But what I know is that gambling money severely tainted Michigan’s basketball program, and gambling has badly damaged professional and amateur sports in this country for decades.

Professional baseball was nearly destroyed 99 years ago, when gamblers paid ballplayers to throw the World Series. Pete Rose, one of the greatest players in history, is forever ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame because of his association with gamblers, and the list goes on.

Betting on things is human nature. Nobody is going stop the office Final Four pool, even if it is technically illegal, and I have nothing against Joe betting Mike twenty bucks on whether the Lions will reach the playoffs.

But legalized gambling is an essentially sterile, non-productive activity. It creates nothing; it doesn’t add goods, services, or help people in any way. Instead, it largely transfers money from people who can’t afford to lose it to rich ones in other states.

History also shows the more you mix gambling with competition, the more you get corruption. Ed Martin, his son’s book demonstrates, wasn’t an evil man. But he made poor choices, he needed to be somebody, and he showered cash on young athletes.

I doubt that Chris Webber ever wondered what child didn’t get to eat dinner, because her gambling addict father had lost the money Ed Martin handed him.

But I think that is something we need to think about.

I have argued for years that our state needs more revenue. But instead of more gambling, doesn’t levying more taxes on those – like me – who can afford to pay make more sense?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.