Do you remember playing street hockey as a kid? Sometimes, to brag about our abilities, we challenged our opponents: “I bet we’ll get to five goals first!” It was a fun way to frame the contest in the streets.

No longer! Sports betting has taken on a life of its own in Canada. It’s estimated that close to 10 minutes per hour was given over to gambling ads or conversation during last year’s Stanley Cup broadcasts. Canada’s professional sports have been taken over by the gambling industry. Words like “epidemic” and “tsunami” have been used to characterize this new reality. How did we get here, and what impact is this having on our nation?

At What Cost?

When the ban was lifted on single-game sports betting in 2021, it didn’t take long before major leagues such as the NHL and NBA signed formal agreements to become “official sports betting partners.” And it didn’t take long before icons such as Wayne Gretzky began to promote gambling, promising that “With every day a new legend is born.” On-air broadcasters now give attention to gambling information at key moments in the game. Current star athletes throw their weightinto the conversation, aimed mainly at young men. Dr. Darragh McGee, a sociologist in the United Kingdom who studies the changing relationship between digital technology, gambling and sports, expresses the result of such celebrity promotion: “Gambling is not just acceptable, but desirable.” Watching sports events now is like being in a casino. Unlike the fun of “betting” in street hockey, however, sports gambling comes with a price.

There is an important cost to the sports gambler himself (and most sports gambling is done by young men). It has been known to lead to runaway debt, with its impact on mental health. This has led to stress in families, even suicide. A recent Public Health England study estimated that more than 400 suicides a year have been linked to problem gambling, and sports gambling is one of the important contributors. The mental health of this generation is being impacted by the marketing of sport celebrities. 

Another cost of sports gambling is that the game is no longer enjoyed for its own sake. Instead of focusing on skillful goaltending, precision passing or courageous blocking of shots, the game is watched to see what happens to the bet that has been placed. The joy of the game is secondary to the joy of winning a bet. It’s as if the purpose of the game is to gamble. In the words of Canadian Olympian Bruce Kidd, gambling has “poisoned the meaning of the sport.” 

Trust and Integrity

If there is a cost to the person gambling, there is also a huge cost to the integrity of the sport itself. The danger of insider influencing is ever-present. Athletes in different leagues have already been suspended because of known gambling on the sport they play. Gambling is not limited to the outcome of the game; bets can also be placed on particular moments and achievements in a game. Can we be sure that the game we are watching hasn’t been compromised by one of the coaches managing line changes, or one of the defencemen easing up on a check, or one of the forwards taking a harmless shot? When we speak of integrity we speak of purity, consistency, honesty. I can’t help but wonder what teammates think when they know that one of their players encourages sports betting. Will they ever wonder if that failure to back check had anything to do with a possible wager? I can’t help but think that one of the casualties of sports betting will be trust on the team.

Coaches talk about playing the game with integrity. They look for players to take responsibility at both ends of the ice, to play for the full 60 minutes. Integrity is a concept grounded in Christian faith. The biblical conviction is that “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy6:4). In his commentary, Deuteronomy, Patrick Miller draws out the implications of this when he argues that God is “faithful, consistent, not divided within mind, heart, or self in any way…. In purpose and being God is one.” Jesus played the game with integrity. His actions embodied his teaching; he could be tough on his own disciples; he played hard for the whole 60 minutes. And Jesus was the consummate team player: he looked not to his own interests, but the interests of others (see Philippians 2:4). Even the critics of Jesus had to acknowledge that he showed “deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality”(Matthew 22:16 NRSVUE). The God we know through the Bible’s story is a God of faithfulness and integrity. This God can be trusted to play the game with integrity.

For the Sake of the Game

Many of us have kids or grandkids who are working hard to train for a particular sport. But what are they working toward? Is your daughter working hard on her slap shot just to contribute to a sport that is compromised by its gambling addiction? Is your grandson working hard on his goaltending to eventually play the game for the gambling industry? There is integrity to any game in sport. Hockey has its integrity, its rules that shape the game, its officiating that creates a level playing field, its coaching that moulds individuals as well as skills.

The gambling industry encourages us to “bet responsibly.” Let’s take it further and take responsibility to seek the integrity of the game at every level. And enjoy watching and playing the game for its own sake, and for the sake of our kids.

Major Ray Harris is a retired Salvation Army officer who lives in Winnipeg.

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