When word spread last month that an offshore sportsbook was taking action on the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023, I had an immediate, visceral reaction.
So did plenty of respected people who are connected to the legalized sports betting world. The Twitter takes were many and quick from consultants, writers, and more, and the disapproval ran deep. To bet on the Special Olympics? That takes a special kind of degenerate. And to offer odds on the Special Olympics? Well, that’s just pure evil.
I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of the discussion.
Much like the famous coming-to-grips Alonzo Mourning meme, though, my brain quickly shifted gears. I went from horrified to something else entirely.
Raising a child with autism
“Could we do more through legalized sports betting to highlight these Special Olympic athletes, celebrate their triumphs, celebrate their pursuits, and help give it more household name recognition?”
That question was not proposed by a sportsbook operator; it was proffered by Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a noted problem and responsible gambling advocate.
She would probably be near the bottom of the list of people one might expect to see encourage wagering on the Special Olympics, which take place every two years and flip-flop between summer and winter sports. (This year’s summer games featured 27 different sports, including track and field, soccer, swimming, and everything else one might expect.) And much like me, she was not a fan of the idea when it first appeared on her radar.
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But also much like me, she has a child with autism. And also much like me, she and her family do everything within their means to treat their child like they would any other child, doing whatever it takes to help guide them in a world not necessarily built for them.
“It was very severe,” Doura-Schawohl said of her son’s case. “Self-injurious behaviors, no eye contact, non-verbal until he was three years old. I stepped back from my career, and we did 40 hours a week of therapies, from speech to PT, OT, ABA. You name it, we did it.”
Today, her 9-year-old son is in a typical classroom with push-in support, but he still faces many challenges most kids — and most parents — never encounter.
“Wednesday night we have a weekly dinner, just us, and he wanted to go bowling after,” Doura-Schawohl said. “We ended up in a middle lane, and I guess we generally don’t end up there, because all of a sudden, it was a debilitating fear of being in the middle lane. The sensory overload of being in the middle lane was a crippling experience.
“Autism is pervasive in our lives,” she noted, using words that will ring true to any parent of a child with autism.
What also rings true is this: All parents of children with special needs want their kids to fit in, want their kids to make friends, want their kids to be happy, want their kids to be included.
And it’s that last bit there — inclusion — that flipped the switch for me.
Inclusion at all costs
The math is perhaps simple: If we’re comfortable betting on typically developing athletes, then is there a reason we shouldn’t be comfortable betting on atypically developing athletes? To say we shouldn’t be betting on them due to their diagnosis implies they’re not athletes, not engaged in actual competition.
I want inclusion at all levels of life for my 12-year-old daughter. This isn’t negotiable. It would therefore be hypocritical to say we shouldn’t be allowed to bet on Special Olympics athletes if I believe — as I do — that we should be allowed to bet on the “normal” Olympics athletes. (Quick pro tip: If legalized betting on the Special Olympics ever comes to pass and you see my daughter listed, don’t bet on her. She shuts her eyes if you toss a ball in her direction. Or a balloon, for that matter.)
“I’m in the business of representing vulnerable populations,” Doura-Schawohl said. “I also believe in affording opportunities for inclusion and equality. And this particular event really makes one question what is and what isn’t appropriate, and where do we prioritize equality and inclusion over vulnerability.
“I don’t think there’s truly a right or wrong answer. My husband and I came at this very differently, and our dialogue got me thinking that maybe this isn’t the worst thing. His perspective was similar to yours, around equality, inclusion, equal opportunity.”
Beyond inclusion, Doura-Schawohl also pointed out there may be no better way to highlight these athletes than by allowing legalized wagering.
“A lot of traditional sports have leaned into the legalization of sports wagering as a way to highlight their sport,” she said. “And I think there might be a similar sentiment here. The Special Olympics are a really important event that have been happening for over 50 years, and how many people really follow it? How many people really celebrate the pursuit of these individuals who are deserving of equal opportunity?”
As we talked further, we started brainstorming some guardrails states could apply should they choose to one day allow wagering on the Special Olympics World Games.
We discussed smaller limits, for starters, and perhaps less — or no — betting on individual athletes and more betting on the teams.
But while Doura-Schawohl is all for the idea of sports betting bringing more people to engage with, and understand, the Special Olympics, she recognizes there is a flip side to the argument. And for her, that flip side is a potential ugly side of sports betting, where athletes are sometimes tormented by bettors who cross the line.
“We have not stopped hearing about what typically developing elite collegiate and professional athletes are facing when it comes to things like harassment and mental health considerations that seem to be amplified and exacerbated through legalized betting,” she said. “And for me, that component, especially when I consider the particular demographic that participates in the Special Olympics, is the most worrying thing.”
A regulator’s perspective
“There’s enough hate in the world without subjecting someone with special needs to any of those things that go on with bettors who attack athletes on social media, or worse.”
That’s from the mouth of a since-retired state government employee who participated in the approval process of sports wagering in their state. They asked to remain anonymous, mostly because they realized this has potential to be a third rail of sports betting discussion. (Worth noting: I reached out to a handful of state regulator offices, and none would go on — or off — the record in discussing this hypothetical.)
Still, the source I spoke with broke it down. They said if an operator brought betting on the Special Olympics to their desk, they’d look at it like any other sport: the integrity, the flow of information, all the basic pieces. (Also worth noting here: The offshore sportsbook that took bets on the Special Olympics ended up with a complete disaster on its hands, with results trickling in, payouts being delayed, and general confusion.)
“You’d have to look at it,” the ex-government employee said. “It’s a mainstream sport, it’s being touted as that, it’s being televised on a network. You’d have to give it credence and walk through it.”
But the Special Olympics would undoubtedly be looked at differently.
“Are you doing it to draw more attention to it? To give it more value? Do you want to keep limits low? How do you protect the athletes? And maybe the way you protect them is just allowing betting on team sports,” the source said. “We don’t allow betting on individual players in college sports in most states, but, of course, they’re still getting beat up on social media.”
Despite all the reasons to consider allowing betting on the Special Olympics, the politics of it all might overshadow everything else.
“There would be an awful lot of people who would say we shouldn’t do it, and that would bring a lot of pressure down on a civil servant who doesn’t want to put themselves in a position where they put their state, their governor, their agency at risk of being criticized for doing something like that,” the source continued. “Politics would become part of the equation. You’re putting an agency and government in a different type of light if they were to move forward on something like this. There will be extreme polarized pieces on this. It would be a lot easier for a regulator to say no.”
‘It is special’
Much like the regulators, most operators I reached out to — even the typically media-friendly ones — didn’t want to touch this hypothetical.
But Martin Lycka, the senior vice president for American regulatory affairs and responsible gambling at Entain, was willing to come to the table, in part because his first cousin has special needs herself. And his concerns mirrored that of the former regulator and Doura-Schawohl: Keeping the athletes safe from losing bettors who cross the line would be of tantamount importance.
Lycka liked the ideas of just betting on team sports and keeping limits at a reasonable level.
“Offering Special Olympics as a betting opportunity would clearly — and it has — raise some eyebrows, but I believe fundamentally there’s no issue offering it as a betting market as long as those guardrails are firmly in place,” Lycka said. “They may have special needs, but they have the skill and ability to reach the highest level.”
Lycka said Entain — which owns half of BetMGM — has no designs on bringing this to any state regulatory agency, but if it were to happen, he would have a long talk with the commercial team.
“If Entain were to do this, I would insist on giving back to the cause so that we’re not just taking advantage of the event,” he said. “In this sense, it is special. There’s a cause to promote. It may be an opportunity, if done in a right and sensible way, of highlighting this cause. The Special Olympics are taking place, let’s pay attention to it, and let’s promote the cause and help these folks. Done wrong, if it’s misused, it’s horrible, it’s terrible. If it’s done right, with the guardrails in place, it could be a positive thing. But it has to be done in a way where most of the benefit goes to the Special Olympics.”
Lycka said Entain, or any operator, should donate a portion of the gambling proceeds back to the Special Olympics, and then, in Entain’s case with the Entain Foundation, the charitable arm should double it.
But Lycka isn’t exactly holding his breath for this to come to pass.
“My gut feel is this will stay in the realm of the hypothetical,” he said. “If someone takes it on, they’d have to approach it in a very sensitive fashion.”
‘I could never agree with something like this’
As a parent of a special needs child, my wife has developed an intricate web of contacts. As such, she was able to hook me up with someone who works with special needs kids and who has a child who is special needs and participates in the Special Olympics, and this person is also connected to the Special Olympics beyond her child’s involvement. For obvious reasons, they also requested anonymity.
And their take on the whole idea? Not great, Bob.
“I don’t love it, especially because sometimes people that bet on regular Olympics often find ways to retaliate against athletes,” they said. “I wouldn’t want that to happen. We already have so many parents who feel so scared about exposing their children anyway, now you’re putting the kids in this vulnerable state. I could never agree with something like this.”
Putting my industry expert hat on, I explained how guardrails could be put in place, how limits could be low, how betting on individual athletes could be banned, how bringing it above board could short-circuit the offshores, how this could bring a lot of positive attention to the Special Olympics.
“This is supposed to be a fun thing,” the parent said. “It would kill the philosophy of what the Special Olympics is all about. This would make it a competitive thing attached to money, which it shouldn’t be. You’d be changing the whole ethics of what the Special Olympics is all about. Then it should be something else, it should be a different organization that would do it.”
Calls and emails to the Special Olympics on this topic went unreturned.
A mix of pros and cons
In the end, and with all these moving parts, Doura-Schawohl couldn’t come to a consensus in her own mind.
“I am absolutely 110 percent conflicted,” she admitted. “I want more amplification, want more people to be invested, want more people to see these athletes in their element. And that’s what they are — athletes. But they are humans that struggle with a lot more than any of us can ever comprehend, and the adversity and negativity that they face daily shouldn’t be amplified because some people are upset about a bet.”
As such, she believes there should be a zero tolerance policy when it comes to harassment, modeled on Ohio’s new law that will seek to ban bettors who “threaten violence or harm against persons who are involved in sporting events.”
“That would be absolutely warranted, absolutely appropriate,” Doura-Schawohl said.
And stating the obvious that nevertheless must be noted, no betting on kids. Whatever the state-by-state laws are concerning betting on minors, those would need to be followed, and perhaps even strengthened.
In the end, Doura-Schwahol sees no easy answers to this debate.
“Everyone wants to see black and white all the time,” Doura-Schwahol said. “But autism — and special needs, in general — is shades of gray.”