Just a few hours after the Oakland Raiders joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the invited guests of honor at Super Bowl XXXVII, deliberations over Super Sunday plans for my friends and I began. As we discussed the food selection, beverage variety, seating options and television size, one friend who is not a fan of either Oakland or Tampa Bay insisted that he should place a wager on the game “just to keep things interesting” for him throughout the contest.
While the comment was made in passing and not meant to evoke any serious thought or reflection, it immediately triggered a series of non-sports related comparisons for me.
Where else but in the wacky world of sports can a person bet on the action and outcome of a specific affair to help maintain focus for the duration of the event?
Young children cannot attend religious services and make wagers on how many pews will fill by a certain hour. Students would never ask what the over-under is for the length in minutes of a boring professor’s lecture. Co-workers do not conduct pools predicting which employee will be the first one fired by the new boss.
While all these scenarios sound amusing, and may even be tempting options for some to consider, they are absurd in the respect that wagering has no “valid” place in society outside of sports.
Gambling on professional and collegiate sports has grown insidiously over the years, and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry fueled by blinding greed and a blend of arrogance, ignorance and flat out stupidity. Nevada sports parlors, online gambling Web sites and illegal bookmaking rings are “open all-night” venues that feed the addictive habit, making it easier than ever to “put twenty on the favorite.”
But for many, simply betting on the outcomes and final scores of games is not enough though. The number of power play shots on goal by the Boston Bruins, the combined assist and rebound totals by Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks or the first team to reach 20 points in No. 1 Duke at No. 15 Maryland are all examples of popular “props” that entice millions of betters each day.
For those individuals who claim they place wagers simply to add to the excitement of an otherwise lifeless matchup, a rude awakening is often in store when a contest does not proceed as planned. Tracking game action tends to be more excruciatingly painful than it is fun. Would-be winners pull their hair, grind their teeth and scream until their throats are raw as they witness a team’s third-string unit check in at the tail end of a blowout and ruin their shot at some fast cash.
As soon as money becomes involved, a game can no longer be appreciated for what it can be when it reaches its full potential — a strategic contest played out by utilizing both mental and physical cunning, all the while adhering to the brutal, yet delicate intricacies of the sport. Sports betting takes tremendous athletes such as Rich Gannon and Warren Sapp and converts them into slot machines and dogs racing around a sloppy track.
Super Bowl Sunday is officially the biggest betting day of the year for sports books. It is estimated that four billion dollars will be poured into Super Bowl wagering this year, only 50 million of which will be placed legally in Nevada. Bizarre categories such as most punts, the highest scoring quarter, total field goal yardage and even the winner of the opening coin flip are all up for bids.
Even before the Raiders and Bucs collected their boarding passes for San Diego, the over-under and point spread were already running through the central nervous system of every gambler — big and small — looking for some “action.” And that’s the core of the issue.
It seems gamblers believe that if they have a few nickels invested in a particular outcome they are actually a “live” part of the game itself. The media encourages this fantasy by supplying continuous updates on the latest from the Vegas sports books, satisfying even the smallest of prognostication palates.
The media doesn’t object. The NFL doesn’t object. The gaming industry doesn’t object. In their collective vision, it’s “the more — ratings/viewers/readers/dollars — the merrier.”
However the merriment is always short-lived. This drastic free-fall seems inevitable given the nature of gambling — in the end everybody’s a loser. And even for those who do walk away winners for the day, it is generally never enough. They often find other games to parlay their winnings against and quickly turn the juice from a big win into sour grapes.
So before you phone your bookie or log on to make your Super Bowl wagers this year, stop to think what it might be like to watch the game without having to worry about which team will commit the first turnover, who will gain the most special teams yardage or what coach will call the first referee challenge. The Super Bowl should be seen for what it is — the final game of the grueling NFL season that pits the league’s two best teams against each other in a glorified battle for football supremacy.
But money and greed continue to taint the once pure world of athletic competition while slowly draining the chaste and unadulterated joy from sport. Chronic gamblers and amateur betters alike might use this Super Sunday as an opportunity to consider what professional sports can be when it’s at its pinnacle.
So sit down with some friends, break open a bag of chips and watch a great brand of football simply for the love of the game. I bet you’ll enjoy it.