March Madness, the NCAA Division 1 national basketball tournament, is back and better than ever. Two interesting developments so far are the incredible number of upsets in the first two rounds and, with the notable exceptions of Liberty University and BYU, the success of the religious schools. At this writing, the Catholics (Loyola-Chicago), the Church of Christ (Abilene Christian), the Baptists (Baylor) and the charismatics (Oral Roberts University) had all advanced. The Sweet 16 is quite the ecumenical affair this year.
Another notable change this year is the nonstop commercials for online sports betting. In fact, as anyone who watches and follows sports can attest, betting on games is an increasingly important part of what it means to be a sports fan. March Madness will be, as the American head of British bookmaker William Hill predicted, "very heavily bet." The American Gaming Association expects about $8.5 billion to be wagered on the tournament. In fact, William Hill is ESPN's official sports betting partner, which means ESPN has an official sports betting partner. And all this is having an effect. Though much of the sports world shut down during the pandemic, 2020 was still a record year for sports gambling.
The main target of this advertising is young men. Though men and women of all ages bet on sports, 43% of 25- to 34-year-old men who watch sports place at least one bet a week. That percentage drops to 20% for men 35-44, and to only 4% over age 55.
Much of this dramatic demographic difference can be attributed to increased availability and ease of participation. Researchers have long known that living within 10 miles of a casino nearly doubles a person's chances of becoming a pathological gambler. Now, with the legalization of online services and apps, everyone lives within not 10 miles but 10 feet.
There are also the differences in generational norms. Gambling is, of course, no longer as taboo as it once was. Still, there's more to it than that. The vision of life in which men strive to contribute, and in which hard work is both rewarded and considered its own reward, has diminished, particularly among the young who, we now know, struggle to find a sense of meaning and are catechized by cultural forces to live for amusement and entertainment.
In a remarkable essay titled "Men Without Chests," C.S. Lewis described what happens in a culture that fills the brain with facts and titillates the senses but does nothing to cultivate virtue: "In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."
A defining feature of young men today is what some have called perpetual adolescence, or "Peter Pan syndrome." Just a generation ago, young men were expected to be on a life trajectory that culminated with marriage and child-rearing. So, their decisions and actions, even as late teens and early 20s, were aimed at the future. As recently as 1986, most 25-year-old men were already married. Today, the median age for first marriage among American men is 30. Traits long associated with adolescence — self-entitlement, addiction to entertainment, lack of self-control, overall angst — are now features of young men well into their 30s and beyond.
Fewer young men are reaching other marks of maturity, either, such as joining or remaining in the workforce. With so much time on their hands, many turn to entertainment, video games, addictions or gambling to stave off the boredom.
The legalization and growth of online gambling has coincided with the legalization of recreational marijuana. This is no coincidence. After all, laws are mostly downstream from the larger culture, and these laws do far more to expand personal license. Rather, they reflect and reinforce an unmistakable message, especially to young men, to aim low, to think short-term thoughts about life and the world, to pursue immediate gratification and to not aspire to too much.
In many cultures, this message would fall on deaf, more mature ears. Not in ours.
From BreakPoint, March 23, 2021; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, www.breakpoint.org.