Make Gambling Embarrassing Again, With Justin Halpern

For all the ways in which sports gambling is dangerous, distasteful, and a threat to even the most cosmetic and vestigial sense of integrity in the leagues that have latched onto it, it is important to remember that it also sucks. That is, above and beyond the risks it presents across the full spectrum, from institutions to individuals, there is also the risk it presents to watching or listening or talking about or thinking about sports, which is to make everything greasier and cheesier and more predatory in its overall experience. Again, this sort of vibe-damage is not really the biggest hazard of inviting this particular vampire across the threshold—I’ll refer you to the first few sentences of this paragraph, or this post—but it is the one that Drew and I decided to talk about in this episode with returning champion guest Justin Halpern.

The first half of the show is more or less devoted to the question of how, why, and how much all of this sucks, and to a lesser extent to what might be done about it. Here as basically everywhere else, it is both easier and much more fun to kick this bloated and deeply wack and quite possibly permanent problem around than to think about how permanent that problem has become, and how it became permanent. We touched on that last part, too, but because none of us are either legislators or people who have a great deal of faith in legislators—we are, respectively, two bloggers and a highly successful TV guy—we mostly focused on trying to pin down what is wackest and worst about sports gambling’s hammerlock on the fan experience at this moment. Justin remembered the unbearable gambling boomlet that followed Rounders, and we celebrated the instantly regrettable TV Poker Moment and the briefly inescapable experience of having people tell you about their “bad beats.” Squirrel Nut Zippers were invoked. Wonderful stuff.

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But still the question remained: What is to be done? Is there any way to roll back the ubiquity of grating know-it-all gambling shit in the broader sports conversation, or the way in which it has edged out basic enjoyment/appreciation as the ostensible pleasure to be found in sports? How, we wondered, could gambling return to its rightful (and perfectly fine, in moderation) role as what Justin called “spice on top of the experience” as opposed to the nightmarish stuffed-crust experience of this moment. I don’t know if it will work, but the answer we settled on—which is basically to make gambling embarrassing loser shit best sequestered in a subreddit and never discussed by normal people in pleasant company—did at least seem like it would be satisfying.

That problem solved, we … well we kicked around the gambling companies a little more, for their attempt to make what is fundamentally a sweaty/lonely endeavor seem like a cool normal thing one does with friends, and we remembered the old janky world of gambling before it moved onto phones. But then we talked baseball, and more specifically discussed the wave of pitcher injuries that has broken across Major League Baseball this year, and seems to do so more or less every year. Justin, who pitched in college during the zenith of the sport’s steroid era, provided some expert perspective on the downstream effects of velocity inflation and the Driveline-ing of pitcher development; I got upset about some stuff, but calmed down some when Justin mentioned Joel Zumaya. What began as a conversation about biomechanics and the limits of the human body when it comes to doing one difficult and strenuous physical activity turned, as it naturally would, into a discussion of the twin perversities of contemporary labor relations and contemporary youth sports.

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Baseball chat continued once we opened the Funbag, as a question allowed us to consider the use of Carrot Top–style prop gags in future home run trots and note the actual progress that Doing Goofy Shit has made in the world of baseball celebrations. We also discussed the best and worst types of movies to watch on airplanes, with a surprising take by the question’s author leading to some less surprising stories from us about our experiences watching variously obnoxious and on-brand films on tiny screens with strangers sitting next to us. When Justin tagged me as “a Mets fan who watches Paul Schrader movies on airplanes,” I couldn’t protest at all. He wasn’t wrong about any of it.

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