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More Americans Getting “Hooked” on Sports Betting

What do Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. all have in common?  They’re sports super-stars, of course. But they’re also something else:  Hard-core gambling addicts.

Which means they’ve also lost a ton of money– much of it betting on sporting events.

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Mayweather, Jr. regularly gambles as much as $400,000 on college football games.  He reportedly once won $3 million on a single Orange Bowl contest.  But his biggest bet – and loss — came in 2014, when he wagered $10 million that the Denver Broncos would win the Super Bowl.  In fact, the Broncos were crushed 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks in one of the biggest Super Bowl blow-outs in history.

Jordan, meanwhile, is fond of betting on golf, including his own head-to-head contests with Woods and Barkley.  He once lost a $1.25 million golf competition with Richard Esquinas, a private businessman from San Diego.  There are rumors, never confirmed, that Jordan’s gambling habit – which includes unsuccessful betting on poker and roulette at casinos in Atlantic City — was a major reason behind his retirement from basketball.

Woods, it seems, has a penchant for card gambling.  He reportedly bets $25,000 a hand when he plays his favorite game – Blackjack — and is known throughout the casino circuit as a high-roller player.

According to one source, “he’s even received a $1 million betting limit by the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where he always requests for the table to be filled with beautiful girls.”

None of these sports celebrities seems to have lost it all gambling – and they have the talent and drive – and above all, the money — to rebuild their fortunes after suffering major reversals.

But the average Joe is rarely so lucky.

Gambling addiction is on the rise in the United States.  Partly that’s because there are more legalized gambling opportunities than ever.  In 2018 the Supreme Court lifted the federal ban on sports betting and since then, 16 states, including New York, New Jersey and Nevada, have legalized the practice, with another 25 states considering similar laws.

And thanks to the Internet, gambling has also become easier.  Today, some 86% of the adult population participates in some form gambling – usually something modest like a weekly poker game – while over 50% report having purchased lottery tickets in the past year.

But the number for whom gambling is a significant compulsive disorder is far smaller.

Researchers estimate the lifetime prevalence rate at about 2% for “pathological” gambling and about 4% for the less severe condition dubbed “problem” gambling – or 6% total.

That may not seem like high percentage, but translated to the adult population at large it means there are roughly 15 million Americans experiencing serious life problems due to their gambling activities.

Gambling addiction like substance abuse can start out innocently enough.  A trip to a casino, a few Jackpots perhaps, followed by reversals.  Most Americans enjoy the brief thrill of the chase — and leave it at that.  But for some, the experience induces changes in the brain wiring similar to the effects of drugs and alcohol.  They become “hooked” to the experience and over time are drawn into ever deepening and compulsive attachment to the “high” it produces — whether they are winning their gambling bets or not.
The lengths to which some average middle class Americans will go to feed their gambling “habit” are extraordinary.  Racking up massive credit card debt, draining retirement and savings accounts and selling off valuables are only the most obvious – and perhaps innocuous – signs of the problem.

Some are forced to stop – or “white knuckle” – their addiction because they simply run out of money, but some are so addicted that they turn to illegal activity – forging signatures on checks or other forms of outright theft, including embezzlement, just to secure more funds to gamble.

Gambling addiction is not a stand-alone mental illness. Between a third and a half of all gambling addicts are substance abusers.  The combination of the two illnesses can prove especially toxic and deadly.  While gambling addiction has its own etiology, research shows that those that substance-abusing gambling addicts suffer the worst psychological consequences, including depression and suicide

Gambling addiction has become so severe that public health specialists have recognized it as a formal psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, or DSM, the nation’s medical Bible on forms of mental illness and their recommended treatment.

Treatments for gambling addiction often follow the same pattern as treatments for substance abuse.  Most addiction recovery centers and organizations located in major US cities offer 12-step “Gambling Anonymous” (GA) meetings modeled on Alcoholic Anonymous.

In addition, gambling addicts with co-occurring disorders, including alcoholism or drug addiction, or depression and anxiety, may be prescribed medications for those diseases that can help treat the sources of their gambling disorder.

However, in recent years, some gambling addicts have begun receiving more customized treatment therapies that appear to show genuine promise.  For example, one pilot study that combined traditional cognitive behavior therapy with mindfulness therapy found that gambling addicts were able to control their compulsive desire to gamble and that these effects were still apparent three months after the conclusion of the therapy.

Gambling addiction treatments are likely to be in increased demand in the years ahead as legal sports betting proliferates.  Arnie Wexler, a compulsive-­gambling advocate, predicts  that “mainstreaming” sports betting will unleash “a volcano of gambling addiction in America.”

And the problem will grow even worse, he says, if sports book operators are allowed to offer “prop” bets allowing gamblers to bet on pending outcomes, such as the success of a field goal or penalty kick (“$15 if he misses!”), or the likelihood of a specific play being called.

In the UK, where prop betting is conducted in some 8,500 “betting parlors” nationwide, soccer players are encouraged to advertise the service on their sports jerseys.  Not surprisingly, the number of “problem” gamblers in Britain has spiked 50% in the past three years.

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About Stewart L

Stewart Lawrence is a trained sociologist and political scientist and a regular columnist for the Washington Times and the Federalist. He is also a former feature contributor to Inside Philanthropy, Counterpunch and the Huffington Post. In 2012 and 2016, he covered the US presidential election campaign for the conservative news magazine Daily Caller. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post. He is currently working on a book about the politics of US immigration policy.

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