Colleges lack addiction resources for online sports gambling surge

Colleges lack addiction resources for online sports gamblers

Seventy-five percent of students gamble, and 67% place bets on sporting events specifically.
Published: January 23, 2023
Chasing the loss: Increase of sports betting after online legalization

Mike placed his first bet when he was in college back in 2007. His friends began to dabble in online poker, and Mike had some “spare beer money” so he tried it. The first time he gambled, he lost. And as quickly as he lost money, he deposited more — what he calls chasing the loss. In hindsight, he admits that was the first warning sign.

“Compulsive gamblers don’t know how to lose,” he said.

Like Mike (who asked not to use his last name for privacy), a lot of people experiment with gambling in college. Seventy-five percent of college students gamble, and 67% bet on sports specifically. Since the legalization of online sports betting, Americans age 21 and older who regularly bet on sports increased by 80%, according to a 2021 study.

But while three-quarters of college students gamble and one in 20 college students meet the criteria for compulsive gambling, less than one-quarter of colleges and universities have formal policies on gambling. Nearly all colleges and universities have programs for substance abuse, but many lack programs centered around behavioral addiction, like gambling.

As bets move to online platforms, the potential for addiction is heightened. The combination of the addictive properties of social media and the addictive properties of gambling in online sports betting apps is dangerous — and maybe even deadly.

Problem gambling has the highest rate of suicides of any addictive disorder, according to Dessa Bergen-Cico, a professor in the Department of Public Health and the coordinator of the Addiction Studies program at Syracuse University. One out of every five problem gamblers has attempted or committed suicide.

As New York Council on Problem Gambling (NYCPG) Veterans Outreach Coordinator Jonathan Crandall said, “Problem gambling prevention is suicide prevention.”

This is why Elizabeth Toomey, team leader for the Central New York Problem Gambling Resource Center, reaches out to campuses to offer this resource, not the other way around. She tries various avenues, from contacting health and counseling centers to connecting directly with professors to reach college students.

“Especially since mobile sports betting came on the scene, I don’t think that college campuses are equipped with the right knowledge or are even seeing it on the radar,” Toomey said.

This is partially because gambling is considered a hidden addiction. Evan Frost, the assistant director of communications and public information at the NYS Office of Addiction Services and Support (OASES), explains that because there are no outward physical signs of problem gambling, it goes undetected for longer compared with substance addiction.

Mike’s problem went undetected for a long time — long enough to max out credit cards and dip into his 401k. He started a 12-step program but admitted he wasn’t fully committed. And then he missed a meeting.

Jaime Costello, director of programs at the National Council for Problem Gambling, compares a gambling problem to a drinking problem.

“If I drank a six-pack before I came into this interview, you’d probably have an idea that I was drunk or something was off,” Costello said. “If I just lost $10,000 or won $10,000, I might come in very happy or really angry. But you wouldn’t know why, right?”

The rhetoric used in mainstream media, like the Gambling Issue of Sports Illustrated pushes problem gambling to the sideline. It focuses on the potential for athletes to be hurt by problem gamblers rather than caring about the problem gamblers themselves.

One warning sign of problem gambling is spending less time with family and friends. Gamblers become so engrossed in their bets and phones that it keeps them from being present in the real world.

Mike admits that he was so preoccupied with betting that he was often distracted while spending time with his children. He would be placing bets on his phone when he was supposed to be watching them.

Kieron Collins, 21, can relate to not being present in a slightly different way. Collins lost $3,000 betting on college basketball within one month. “I was betting more to get out of my hole, and it just wouldn’t hit,” he said. “I felt like shit.” After his March Madness bets missed, his social life stalled as he worked odd jobs and saved money on weekends.

Micah Pruyn Goldstein, a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University, is an extreme example of a sports bettor.

“I love the fact that there is just so much money out there just being handed to me, and all I gotta do is just reach out and grab it,” Goldstein said.

Pruyn Goldstein wakes up on Monday mornings eager to check the betting odds for that week. On Tuesdays, he writes to professional sports bettors. On Wednesdays, he listens to sports betting podcasts and records his own podcast, where he, too, talks about sports betting. By Thursday, he has decided where he will spend his money, and by Thursday night, he is zoned in on the football game. Sundays are dedicated solely to football as he anxiously watches whether his bets hit or not.

He devotes time, energy, and money to sports betting, with wins and losses often altering his emotions. He drinks to celebrate wins and gets drunk to forget losses.

Imagine if he were to replace the activity of betting and all the preparation that goes into it with doing drugs.

“Somebody spends hours planning how they’re going to get it when they’re going to do it, and then spends all day using it and has a significant emotional response afterward,” said Bergen-Cico. “Those would all be things that if you replace the term gambling with cocaine, it would seem pretty clear what it is.”

After missing that meeting years ago, Mike stopped getting help and tried to move on with his life. For 10 years, he focused on other priorities. He got married, had two kids and remained relatively clean, enjoying the occasional poker night or lottery ticket and nothing more.

Until Virginia legalized online sports betting in 2021.

Ads for Fanduel bombarded his television and phone and reignited his interest in gambling. He thought he could handle it this time because he knows sports and could be smart about his bets — a mindset he’d mistakenly convinced his younger self of only a decade before. Mike hit a losing streak and began chasing his losses. Four maxed-out credit cards, five personal loans and a mountain of debt weren’t even the worst of it in his opinion.

“The thing I told myself that I would never ever do by God is take money out of my kids’ college funds. Yet I still did it anyway,” he said. “That makes me feel the sickest.”

Mike’s problem didn’t just affect himself anymore. Five percent of New Yorkers have a gambling problem, but problem gambling doesn’t affect just the gambler.

“One gambler affects the lives of eight to ten other people. So now you’ve gone from 5% to 55% of New Yorkers who are struggling with some issues around problem gambling,” Toomey said.

And according to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, the number is only increasing. Kaitlin Brown, director of programs and services, said calls and chats to the Council’s helpline have, on average, doubled compared to before sports betting and online casinos became legal last year.

Not only is there a shift in the number of calls, but also in who is calling.

Kelly Leppard, the prevention services coordinator for the Connecticut State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, acknowledged that people calling the helpline or going into treatment are younger now.

Because human brains do not fully develop until our mid to late twenties, younger people are more likely to partake in risky behaviors. This includes betting.

Chris Spindler placed his first bet at 12 years old. He lives in the UK, which legalized sports betting in 2014.

“I definitely saw it as a way to make money. I think that’s a direct red flag in the first place,” Spindler said. “It’s definitely not a way to make money. You need to see it as entertainment, which I certainly didn’t.”

Jaime Costello compares sports betting with going to the movies. She spends a certain amount of money for tickets, popcorn, soda and candy and leaves with a story about the movie and a bellyache from the treats.

“Gambling should be viewed in the same way,” Costello said. “I’m going with my $100, and I’m not going to come home with my $100. It’s about expecting to not go home with anything other than a good time with your friends.”

Spindler explained that if his parents had not caught him, he would probably still be gambling now, regardless of how bad it got.

“All the adverts use ex-footballers or famous people having a good time, smiling,” he said. “They use all these massive bright colors just to show it in a positive light.”

Leppard has witnessed this trend in the U.S. She compared it to vaping advertisements with candy-like flavors. “You get a kid when they are young, and now you have a customer buying your product throughout their life,” she said.

An NYCPG survey found that 38.7% of 12 to 17-year-olds have gambled in the past month. The Council is trying to mitigate this problem with Youth Decide, a holiday campaign aimed at preventing people from giving young kids scratch-offs for Christmas or birthday presents.

But this only provides one barrier to developing a problem. Advertisements also target college students. Pointsbet and Draftkings pop up on Quizlet, a website students use to study. They advertise during commercial breaks on ESPN and even catch potential gamblers’ attention from inside sports stadiums.

Instead of helping problem gamblers, universities like LSU partner with gambling apps to make money. Apps pay to have their names mentioned during radio broadcasts, highlighted on schools’ mobile apps and displayed inside arenas and stadiums.

They’re targeting an audience that can’t even bet legally since students in the stadium are under 21. LSU found itself in hot water after it sent a campus-wide email encouraging faculty, students and fans to sign up using a code that rewards new accounts with $300 following an initial bet of $20. The school faced backlash as many parents expressed concern.

“They’re doing it for money and so it’s just interesting how they are kind of putting their own people at risk for that,” Leppard said.

Infographic: The Brain of a Problem Gambler

Some states require ads to include a helpline and organizations to help problem gamblers, like the NYCPG. These resources are often overlooked because the number or website appears in small type and pops up briefly at the end of a commercial.

Cormac Slattery, 22, a University of Nevada, Reno student who bets, says he barely even notices the helpline numbers and resources.

“By the end of the commercial, you’ve kind of tuned out,” Slattery said. “I feel like college kids stop listening and the last 10 seconds is where they tell you to be safe and here’s the hotline number for all this stuff.”

Data from the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling shows that when the number appears bigger, calls to the center double. Mary Drexler, the center’s program director, agreed with Slattery’s take. “If I’m watching something and it’s not in my face, I don’t see it,” she said.

Frost pointed to OASES research that shows teenagers and college-age young adults are more impulsive and at higher risk for developing gambling disorders. This is exacerbated by the fact that many are living away from home for the first time and are socializing in new ways, which can include more risk-taking behaviors. Many also view gambling as a risk-free activity, which is reinforced by gambling advertising in some cases.

Frost, Brown and Leppard hope college campuses implement problem gambling resources. Frost urges campuses to develop policies, avoid using gambling in fundraisers, publicize resources, educate on the dangers and prevent advertisement on media platforms. Brown encourages schools to integrate gambling into current mental health and substance abuse conversations.

Leppard and the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling are rolling out an initiative that provides ten colleges or universities funding to raise awareness and educate on harms associated with gambling and the help that’s available.

Mike explained that he is working on using coping mechanisms to manage his addiction and has barriers in place, like self-exclusion, which means he legally cannot bet or go into a casino. He also attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings where he can be open and honest and not feel judged.

“If you find yourself with a gambling problem that’s impacting you and or your family, there’s help and there’s hope,” said Drexler.