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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2002 / 26 Teves, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Gambling with lives

The Pete Rose controversy points to a problem our leaders prefer to ignore | For real fans, there is really no such thing as an off-season. This is especially true for baseball fanatics, for whom the phrase "hot stove league" was invented to describe the way they spend winters arguing about the sport. But this winter's hottest controversy isn't about who will win next year.

Rather, it is over whether one former player should be forgiven for committing the cardinal sin for any ballplayer: gambling on the outcome his own team's games.

Pete Rose - who spent most of his 24-year career with the Cincinnati Reds, amassing the most base hits in Major League history, and who helped the Phillies to the only World Series victory in their history - is currently banned from the sport.

In 1989, while managing the Reds, Rose was investigated by baseball's commissioner's office. A report, prepared by investigator John Dowd, detailed the level of Rose's addiction, his indebtedness to gamblers, and the fact that he bet on games involving his own team. Though he fatuously denied everything, Rose agreed to a plea bargain in which he accepted a sentence of a lifetime ban from the sport. By agreeing to being placed on the "permanently ineligible" list, Rose also placed himself outside of consideration for election to baseball's Hall of Fame.

Rose has never come to terms with either his betrayal of his profession or his problem. But, predictably, fans that loved the play of "Charley Hustle" have clamored for him to be forgiven and, at the very least, admitted to Cooperstown, if not back into baseball's good graces. The more time that passes, it seems, the greater the willingness on the part of many to ignore the truth about him. The same seems to be true with the equally guilty "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who was banned as one of the eight "Black Sox" who dumped the 1919 World Series.

Faced with his own declining popularity, current commissioner Bud Selig appears to be leaning toward some form of forgiveness for Rose despite the opposition of many in baseball.

Baseball fans are bitterly divided over this question, but it would be a mistake to see this as nothing more than a sports controversy. The decision about the fate of Pete Rose speaks volumes about our unwillingness to confront one of our society's growing problems: gambling addiction, and the role both sports and government is playing in spreading this plague.

Once restricted to the margins where the Mafia controlled it, in the last half-century gambling has bec ome largely legal. State lotteries have become ubiquitous. Gambling is available on the Internet, at government-owned off-track betting parlors and in casinos. More seriously, deficit-ridden state and local governments see gambling as an increasingly important source of revenue.

Here in Pennsylvania, both major candidates in the recent race for governor pledged to introduce slot machines at racetracks as a way to increase the flow of funds into state coffers. Though there are no plans to introduce casinos to compete with those in nearby Atlantic City, it is probably only a matter of time before that issue is brought up again.

Despite its growing acceptance by a nonjudgmental public, gambling is not a victimless vice. It is a form of addictive behavior that causes immense suffering to those in its grip, as well as to their families. Every day in this country, lives are being ruined by a state-supported industry that is systematically taking a larger and larger proportion of the disposable income of its generally poor and lower-middle-class clientele. Studies show that in every locality where legal gambling is introduced, the social pathologies associated with this scourge increase proportionately while resources to help those in trouble are scarce.


In particular, state lotteries are becoming more brazen in their marketing as they act as the most regressive of taxes on those who can least afford it. Left unsaid in most discussions of lotteries is the fact that their misleading advertisements and egregiously small odds of winning would mark them as a con game and subject to prosecution were they not run by the state.

This bunko racket is not restricted to the state. The growing number of casinos on Indian reservations were supposed to relieve the poverty of needy Native Americans, but as a recent report in Time magazine noted, these gambling palaces are making millions for their investors and doing little for the poor.

And on the national level, the "gaming industry," as it styles itself, is becoming more of a force, using campaign contributions to tighten its grip on this peculiarly modern form of legalized crime.

Is anyone in government thinking seriously about the implications of this trend?

Don't bet on it.

When I asked Pennsylvania's Governor-Elect Ed Rendell recently if he was worried about aiding and abetting the growth of gambling addiction by promoting more slot machines, he didn't give me much of an answer. Rendell pointed out those Pennsylvania gamblers who currently lose their shirts in New Jersey can't get enough help in their home state. He explained that if, as Rendell wishes, they were fleeced locally rather than at an Atlantic City clip joint, they'd be eligible for more services.

Rendell also thinks senior citizens' drug benefits, which he hopes to finance with the slots revenue, justify the measure. But the fact that some of the same seniors he hopes to provide with cheaper prescriptions are often the ones being enticed into feeding portions of their fixed incomes into these slot machines doesn't seem to deter the incoming governor - or anyone else - from the scheme.

Who is speaking up about this? Some religious groups, mostly Christian, can occasionally be heard from. Sadly, few in the Jewish community seem prepared to say anything. Disgracefully, some churches and synagogues are themselves compromised by dependence on forms of gambling - including bingo games whose players are sometimes the local poor, not bored retirees.

Gambling as a form of entertainment and a venue for crime has, as Rendell rightly pointed out to me, been with us since civilization began. In both its legal and illegal forms, it is also virtually inseparable from sports, as the popular weekly betting pools on professional football prove.

But the fact that a type of victimization exists anyway doesn't give us the moral authority to profit from it. As baseball decides what to do about Pete Rose's shameless bid for vindication without repentance, we should remember that gambling is more than a threat to the integrity of baseball. It is a growing blight upon America that needs greater scrutiny, not more indulgence.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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