It probably won’t be the last time this happens. Last week, Bradley Beal was placed under police investigation for becoming too interactive with an angry fan. That fan, as is his prerogative in a society rich in certain strains of freedom, bought himself into misery by betting $1,300 on the live Washington Wizards game he was attending. Beal went back and forth with the man, who accused Beal of personally losing him money—which, to be sure, is not how this works; Beal is not the fan’s financial manager—and allegedly knocked a hat off the fan’s head. The fan, perhaps in an attempt to recoup his idiotically lost money in an eventual civil suit, filed simple battery charges with the local police, claiming that Beal’s hand made contact with his cranium while he removed his cap.
Feelings on whether Beal acted appropriately will vary, but what’s important in the macro sense is that this will not be the first trial of its kind between fan and athlete. With sports betting becoming legalized, popularized, and rammed down the public’s throat through constant advertisements, lots of people are engaging with live games in much more fraught and troubling ways. I am not the first person to watch a game on ESPN and wonder how, exactly, we’ve come to a place in our society where it’s not a criminal act to have Kendrick Perkins encourage you to place any amount of money on outcomes as random and pointless as “which team will score the next basket.”
I am a genetic descendant of multiple gambling addicts, who had to know someone to place their bets, and often ended up wishing that they didn’t know anyone. One of them lost it all. So, I know it when I see it, and today I see it everywhere: this is depraved, awful, soul-sucking stuff. It’s bad, and it should make you feel bad. You are in a mud where you don’t belong, day-trading on the projected capacities of physically greater men. And every time you loudly blame a team or player for “losing you money,” you are putting a dangerous fallacy out into the world, and taking part in a historical athlete-viewer dynamic that is, to put it mildly, not very nice to get into the depths of. Stop it. Get some help.
Thirty-two years ago, a movie was released, The Last Boy Scout. Equally absurd and prescient, it envisioned the future we now live in, where legalized gambling has come to pro sports and altered the incentives within them in unsavory ways. During the movie’s opening vignette, Billy Cole, a running back over-leveraged by the mob, has to deliver an impossible outcome on a dark and rainy football field, which he is reminded of by a phone call at halftime. Knowing that things might get too dire to bear, he tucks a pistol into his waistline, and as the game expires and his failure becomes complete, he pulls it out while running down the field with ball in hand; he fires away at opponents, scores a touchdown, and then gets on his knees and ends his life with a bullet.
The scene, and the movie itself, is cartoonish in the way that the hyper-violent Hollywood pulp of its day was, and as such, it was and is easy to dismiss. Beal’s boil-over, however, suggests that sub-fatal altercations caused by the machinations of widespread gambling could be on the rise. Because there is, at baseline, something unwell about many sports fans—grown men who have never been to therapy, screaming about the exploits and downfalls of different men, who are sometimes children. Their day-to-day moods are roller coasters, designed and driven by athletes, front office executives, and media members that they don’t personally know, but have life-altering parasocial relationships with.
To hyper-charge this mess with an unending series of potentially tragic financial risks is to unseal a box of spirits that we will almost certainly regret ever seeing the faces of. You won’t hear much analysis of the moral nature of this ongoing phenomenon, though, because most of the channels that might deliver it are financially dependent on the gambling outfits, which are their biggest advertisers. In just a few years, the sports-betting industrial complex has wedded itself to professional American sports in a Too Big To Fail kind of way. What’s happening with Beal is tiny beans compared to what could be next—with incentives like these, regular institutional scandal should be expected. Pro sports weren’t a clean world to begin with, but we could be entering an era that’s seedier than any we’ve known.