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Is It OK for Christians to Bet On Sports?

Is It OK for Christians to Bet On Sports?

Over the last several years, the landscape of sports in the United States has undergone a significant transformation with the legalization of sports betting in 2018. What was once confined to smoky, dimly lit casinos or underground bookies has now become a mainstream activity, easily accessible through smartphones and online platforms. During this year’s March Madness tournament, Americans legally wagered nearly $3 billion, according to American Gaming Association estimates.

While the allure of potentially big winnings and the excitement of predicting game outcomes draw many in, there’s a darker side to this growing industry — an increasing number of young people are becoming heavily addicted to sports betting. And there’s no signs of it slowing down.

That’s a troubling prediction for many. Pastors like Dr. Derwin Gray, the lead pastor of Transformation Church in South Carolina, are particularly concerned about what it means for the future of the U.S. We sat down with Gray to talk through the dangers of this rising trend, the nuances of casual betting versus addiction, and how you can get help if you’re struggling with sports betting.

What has led to this increase in sports gambling over the last year?

There’s been an increase in sports gambling because people like to make money. I began to notice a couple of years ago, when I would turn on ESPN or even in some of my sports apps, there was always this marketing for sports betting, right? Now, with the popularity of the NFL, the NBA and college athletics, people are wanting to capitalize on something that’s not a virtue, but a vice. I think greed is fueling it.

So we have this toxic combination of instant gratification and easy access to betting. Not only do you have the dopamine injection from your smartphones, now you have the dopamine rush from sports betting. I think we’re going to see a major uptick in gambling addiction, if we haven’t already.

Many people don’t view sports betting as a hobby, not a bad thing. Why is it so dangerous? 

Any form of addiction holds you in slavery. So in this case, it’s going to be financial and/or mental. But when you’ve got teenage kids who have access to this, there’s long-term implications. Any addiction is going to have a negative effect on your soul. It’s going to have a negative effect on your family. All around, it is just not a good thing.

I don’t like the idea that professional sports are partnering with them. And I’ll say this — as a former NFL player, I get that the NFL exists to make money. It’s a business. But also, you have to be cognitive of the people who could potentially have a vice towards this. And I just think greed is fueling it. The high that you get from gambling is like cocaine. I mean, it’s the same exact thing. We have to be worried, but I understand from a business perspective, they feel they might as well get the tax money and the profits instead of illegal gambling. But when I played in the NFL from 1993 to 1998, before the season started, we always had this conversation about gambling and betting and how it’s off limits for us.

Something else that’s happening too is college athletes and professional athletes are now starting to get death threats because they’ve messed up the betters’ lines. That’s when it’s just going absolutely too far. As a former athlete, I’m trying to win the game. I’m not concerned about fantasy football points. I’m not concerned about parlays. I’m concerned about one thing: winning the football game. But there have been coaches and players, like Angel Reese who said she’d gotten a lot of death threats with gambling. There’s a professional NBA coach who said the same thing.

And so I think it’s a recipe for disaster, but unfortunately, people care about money more than they care about people’s souls.

Young people, in particular, are susceptible to sports gambling. Why do you think that is?

I think part of it is because they designed the apps to look like games. But secondly, when you bet, it does create this dopamine rush.

I have a really good friend, Dr. Daniel Amon, who is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. I was explaining to him that I love fishing and my favorite part of fishing is when I set the hook of what that fish could be. He explained that’s what dopamine does to me. It’s the excitement of the dopamine, it’s me thinking I may get the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. And so the best part about it is the surprise of what it’s going to be.

That dopamine rush creates these feelings. And so, from a gambling perspective, getting more and more dopamine rushes, you’re chasing what is it like for me to win, right? Teenagers, particularly young men, their brains don’t develop until 25 to 27. We’re putting that resource in their hands with sports betting.

What about the person who makes a $2 bet here and there who participates in fantasy football with their friends? Is there a danger in that?

I think it’s all dependent on the person and their spiritual maturity and their wiring. If you’re betting small amounts, just ask yourself why? What I’m talking about is not on-the-side-bets with your buddies. I’m talking about a consistent rhythm of being preoccupied with betting versus your friends offering to buy you a steak if your team wins, you know? I’m not talking about that.

What I’m talking about is you’ve got the apps downloaded, you’re following multiple teams, you’ve got parlays. I’m talking about where it is overwhelming you. But, that could be the way that it starts. It depends on the disposition. If you have a history of addiction in your family, it’s probably not a good idea. If there are people in your family who’ve had a history of gambling addiction, it’s probably not a good idea.

For someone who is beginning to struggle with a gambling addiction, how can they get help? 

I am unapologetically a Jesus guy. At the end of the day, all of us are looking for something that this world has no capacity to give. All of us are looking for love, we’re looking for purpose, we’re looking for validation, we’re looking for happiness. And I believe that the person of Jesus Christ. I believe the person of Jesus Christ is the ultimate validation. I believe that He’s the ultimate happiness and happiness isn’t always smiling. Happiness is a deep-seated purpose in alignment with God.

To anyone who has a need or feels a compulsion to bet, ask yourself, what happiness are you changing? What do you think the money’s going to give you? What do you think the dopamine high is going to give you? Because the reality is, the more you splash yourself with dopamine, the more you’re going to need it. Dopamine was designed by God to be a slow drip for fight or flight. So what is it that you’re looking for in gambling that you don’t think that Jesus can give you?

Or, if you are in full-blown addiction, there is no shame in asking for help. At 53 years old, I believe the strongest people are the people who quickly ask for help. Ask for someone to show you the way — because weakness is the ultimate sign of strength. Jesus can only help people who are weak enough to ask for it and that’s when we’re stronger.

I would also take some time to study the neuroscience of gambling, the neuroscience of dopamine hit and what that does to your body. You literally have withdrawals. You have it even with our smartphones and particular social media apps that are designed to give us dopamine hits so that we can be on our phones more. Because social media companies aren’t giving us their apps for free. We are the product.

It’s all about finding ourselves in a rhythm of God’s grace. I enjoy sports. I love sports. It’s a beautiful part of creation. We just have to be wise because there’s a lot of people who’ve lost things. I’ve had former NFL teammates who get done playing and miss that dopamine rush they once had. And I’ve seen a lot of my friends lose a lot of money chasing that rush in casinos. Whether you snort coke and get in a dopamine rush or you’re laying down bets and get in a dopamine rush, the same rewiring is taking place.

Dopamine is a good and beautiful thing from God. He is a master designer, but it’s us who perverts it. It’s a matter of, how the ancient church fathers would say, taking our disorders and allowing the spirit of God to order them, under the love of Christ.

You can listen to this conversation on The RELEVANT Podcast

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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