It isn’t often that a sitting governor co-hosts a sports-talk program, so when New Jersey governor Chris Christie struck up a friendship with New York sports jock Craig Carton and started appearing occasionally on his early-morning show on WFAN, I began listening. I was mostly interested in how Christie, who somehow managed to become Jersey’s governor while professing devotion to the Dallas Cowboys, would handle the angry callers. But listening in, what struck me most was not what Christie said, but rather, how Carton revealed what sounded like an intense preoccupation with gambling.
The sports jock talked about betting on NFL games in ways that would be legal only in Las Vegas. He called football a sport that men loved principally because they could gamble on it, seemed to know an inordinate amount about the many ways to do it, and described gambling as something that sports fans would enjoy regardless of whether it was legal. He also called sports gambling a “degenerate world” and himself an addict, but in a mocking, half-serious tone. His talk didn’t seem to bother WFAN management. In fact, as attitudes toward sports gambling continued to loosen, Carton grew more brazen about discussing his habit. Today, even the commissioners of some major sports have said that they’re no longer opposed to sports betting.
The growing acceptance of sports gambling, driven in part by government legalization of other forms of gaming, changes nothing about its social consequences. So I wasn’t shocked by the news last week that Carton had accumulated several million dollars in gambling debts, according to a federal complaint, and, in an attempt to bail himself out, had allegedly constructed a Ponzi scheme on ticket sales that bilked investors out of millions of dollars. FBI agents arrested him on Wednesday.
According to his own 2013 life story, Carton became fascinated with gambling in his youth, when his parents bought him a video console that included a “casino” package of games like blackjack and roulette. He got serious about those games quickly, inviting neighborhood kids over to take their money, though the enterprise fell apart when one victim’s father found out about it. Some years later, when he was making his mark as a sports radio host, Carton noticed that his employer, CBS SportsLine, operated a side business that proffered advice from so-called gaming professionals—which isn’t illegal—on sports bets. Thinking that he could do better, Carton created an online site, Vegas Experts, featuring the picks of a tout named Marc Lawrence. For a while, Carton considered giving up his radio career, marveling at how he and his partner “had tapped into the degenerate world of gambling” so profitably. He juggled two careers until he let Lawrence buy him out, so that he could concentrate on radio.
Carton’s obsession with sports betting kept growing, however, and in our increasingly no-stigma society, he was even able to write about it. In 2006, while working at a New Jersey radio station, he penned a piece for a local newspaper entitled, “A Bad Case of Fantasy Fever.” The piece begins: “Hello, my name is Craig and I’m an addict.” As if to mock his growing problem, he tries to persuade his readers that they’re all like him in their obsession: “you know you do it. Odds are you’re doing it right now.” In his book, he tells men that their wives and girlfriends should “respect the fact that Sundays between Labor Day and February are yours to drink, gamble and hang out.”
At the time he penned his op-ed, fantasy-sports leagues were largely organized among friends for casual side-wagers, if that. But the games and the stakes were getting heftier, and Congress lent a hand. Months before Carton’s newspaper piece, legislators passed the Unlawful Internet Gaming Act, to clamp down on online betting, but they exempted fantasy sports precisely because it was considered a harmless pastime. Soon afterward, professional enterprises like FanDuel and DraftKings figured out how to monetize the concept, with leagues that charged bettors to enter and offered big prize money for the winners. Growth exploded in part because, as I’ve explained before, the new fantasy leagues tapped into psychological research on the power of instant gratification by designing weekend games that provided immediate payouts to players, rather than forcing them to wait for an entire season. Eventually, states began clamping down, with new rules to regulate the games, but not before trends had shown how powerful an attraction this form of betting can be.
Whether Carton would have crashed and burned even without the increasing acceptance of sports betting—which extends well beyond fantasy leagues, and remains technically illegal in every state but four—is impossible to know. What is known is that our laissez-faire attitude toward gaming ignores hard truths about the susceptibility to gambling addiction among a portion of the population, and that modern research into how the human brain works have led gaming organizations—including our state-owned lotteries—to design highly seductive and addictive games. Research also shows that legalization increases the incidence and frequency of gaming, and spurs more addiction, with all the social costs—bankruptcy, crime, family disruption—that go along with it.
And yet New Jersey, eager for the revenues that would come from taxing legalized sports gambling, is fighting in court to tear down federal restrictions against the activity. As for Carton, the father of four children, who until a short while ago seemed to be leading a fantasy life of his own as a guy making good bucks to talk sports, faces financial ruin and up to 45 years in jail if convicted. It doesn’t seem quite so sporting anymore.
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