Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, Victor NuÃ±ez knew of only three gambling venues, all frowned upon: the Hollywood Park racetrack, the Las Vegas Strip and the neighborhood bookie.
Now he’s in National City running a nonprofit youth athletic program, and guilt-free gambling is all around. The state lottery. Commercial card rooms. Sports and Internet wagering. Televised poker tournaments.
But NuÃ±ez thinks it is Indian gaming, more than anything else, that’s neutralizing the social stigma of gambling, in large part because of tribes’ support for organizations such as his Community Youth Athletic Center.
"Before, everybody saw gambling as negative, as addicting, and the gambling enterprises just took care of their own," he said. "Now the tables have turned and (tribes) have gotten a piece of the pie. They have not just kept it to themselves; they’re out there sharing."
Pollsters, scholars and industry experts agree that public acceptance of gambling in the United States has grown over the decades.
And many agree with NuÃ±ez that in a region such as San Diego County, with eight highly visible tribal casinos, Indian gaming is a major force pushing the legitimization of gambling.
"You can’t go out to an event in San Diego without running into one of the Indian logos on the wall," said Gordon Clanton, a San Diego State University sociologist.
National opinion surveys on gambling have recorded approval ratings of 60 percent to 65 percent since the late 1990s, said Frank Newport,editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. That’s a 180-degree shift from 1951, when Gallup found only 38 percent approval.
Currently, "around a third of Americans think it’s immoral or wrong, and the other two-thirds think it’s morally OK or not a moral issue at all," Harvard University public health professor John Benson, a specialist on gambling issues, said of surveys for the past 10 years.
Attitudes have changed as legal gambling has become more common. Californians have been able to wager on horse races since the 1930s. Commercial card rooms had been around for more than a decade before the state began regulating them in 1984. The government has run and promoted a statewide lottery since 1984.
Indian gaming’s roots also extend back to the early ”˜80s, when California tribes began offering high-stakes bingo games. By the 1990s, tribes had begun adding video gambling machines, which the state considered illegal. Political and legal battles continued until 2000, when the state’s voters legalized Nevada-style slots and casino gambling on Indian reservations.
Of course, gambling isn’t the only former taboo that’s gained wider tolerance. Attitudes about divorce, premarital sex and interracial dating have changed.
"Once something becomes pervasive and there isn’t an organized effort against it, you have increased acceptance," said UCSD sociologist John Evans. In San Diego, he said, Indian casinos now "just seem to be part and parcel of the environment."
The regional casinos draw huge numbers of patrons — up to 10,000 a day at the biggest ones. Those customers come from all racial and economic groups, and from all over the county and beyond.
Pollster John Nienstedt of Competitive Edge Research in San Diego noted that more than 60 percent of county residents in a recent poll said they’d been to an Indian casino.
The eight local casinos employ 13,000 workers and spend tens of millions of dollars a month buying supplies from local vendors, an estimate based on figures the large local casinos have shared in the past.