Colleges lack addiction resources for online sports gambling surge
Colleges lack addiction resources for online sports gamblers
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.