It’s that oft-quoted moment from the film Casablanca which has become handy shorthand for the skewering of mock impertinence about the perils of betting.
Captain Renault swiftly pivots from the role of poacher to gatekeeper when the need arises, telling Rick that he’s “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on” at the American’s popular establishment.
For the longest time, Americans have loved and feared gambling in equal measure. All the detritus of bad life choices is shuttled over to the Las Vegas hold-all in the Mojave Desert and on to the scattered reservations controlled by Native Americans across 30 states.
These latter casinos — light years from the kitschy glamour of the Vegas Strip — are undeniably grim places, no sense of night or day and no respite from the constant whirring of the slot machines. But they provide much needed revenue in extremely deprived areas.
Ideally, it would be the happy fools with too much money who would journey in from the cities and the locals would benefit. But that’s not always the case; New York’s Chinatown sends busloads of impoverished punters up to Connecticut nightly and as is with the case with all betting everywhere, the profits mainly stem from the ill-equipped 95% who don’t know when to accept defeat.
Meanwhile, the states themselves benefit hugely from their very legal lotteries, those billion-to-one chances which working class people in particular can’t get enough of. So bountiful are the revenues that it has morphed into a confidence trick of budget balancing — taxes on higher earnings cut in order to avail of the oceans of cash flowing into state coffers from scratch cards and the random selection of nightly coloured numbers.
But if we’re fundraising for my soccer club or my GAA club over here, we have to be very careful that the promotional material used to publicise whichever shoddily thrown together competition it may be does not include any dollar signs.
Otherwise you’d be accused, rightly, of taking money in and offering it back out as a prize, asking people to make a gentle punt on a sporting outcome. It’s a crime, and an extremely popular one at that.
More than ever, sport in the US is becoming intertwined with politics and societal behaviour, with the NFL especially blinded by the glare of public opinion.
Yesterday, Adrian Peterson — American Football’s greatest running back on his day — was banned for the rest of the season for charges related to the corporal punishment of his four-year-old son.
It was a firm decision by the NFL commissioner which allowed little room for the player’s potential rehabilitation since the incident. It was a PR move by the governing body keen to protect its bottom line and being forced to act promptly. If it sounds like I have some modicum of sympathy for what must have been a conflicted decision process, it’s because I do. They needed to be seen to act and Peterson was a convenient outlet, a fall guy in a huge profit maker.
The NBA, meanwhile, has the luxury of being relatively scandal-free. This has allowed its commissioner Adam Silver to cannily come in with a proposal everyone can hang their hat off: Legalise gambling and bring it in from the shadows.
He was offered Op-Ed space in the New York Times last Friday and he took that opportunity to show a dramatically evolved line of thinking from one of the world’s most significant sporting associations.
Unencumbered by any major public faux pas by any of his players, he delivered a clear message, the NBA wants the benefits of sports gambling to be wrangled in a more sensible direction; away from the Caribbean Islands and the handful of Vegas bookies who profit so impressively.
For more than two decades, he pointed out, the NBA has opposed the expansion of legal sports betting, as have the other major professional sports leagues in the US.
But this no longer makes sense because in spite of all the legal restrictions, there is almost a prohibition era joy to the widespread acceptability of sports betting
Every newspaper will incorporate the money lines into their NFL game previews and when university students gear up for March Madness, Vegas will be licking its lips at the billions of dollars about to flow in.
“It is a thriving underground business that operates free from regulation or oversight,” points out Silver. “Because there are few legal options available, those who wish to bet resort to illicit bookmaking operations and shady offshore websites.”
Citing the example of the ubiquitous betting on games in England, Silver displayed his envy of the Premier League. Jersey sponsorship is coming soon in the NBA and one day soon, maybe even bookmaker branding underneath Lakers and Celtics logos.