The Effects of Gambling in Sports Organizations

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Athletes are 4 times more likely to develop problem gambling habits when compared to the general population. This statistic is startling, yet the issue of problem gambling really isn't discussed in the United States, especially when it comes to young adults and those involved in sports. Despite the expansion of gambling outlets, legislators in the majority of states are sorely lagging behind when it comes to implementing safeguards to protect people from developing some form of gambling addiction.

There are an estimated 2 million Americans that have a gambling disorder, 4-6 million that struggle with problematic gambling, and 8-14% who are at-risk. No matter where you look nowadays, there are new avenues that facilitate some form of betting or highly publicized periods of intense gambling activity like the Super Bowl and March Madness ready to lure people into risking a stake. Whether it's controversial video game loot boxes, fantasy sports, or other online gambling outlets (which have grown in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic), never before has it been so easy to place a bet.

Gambling itself, of course, is not malicious and is a great source of entertainment for those who participate in moderation. But the fact of the matter remains: the more opportunity there is to gamble, the more people there are to develop problem gambling habits. It is clear that the US' infrastructure for combating this growing problem is sorely lacking — especially when it comes to the sports industry.

A Lacking Infrastructure: The State of Gambling in the US

As the sports gambling industry explodes in the U.S., it’s becoming increasingly clear that states and organizations are ill-equipped to handle the damaging effects of problem gambling. While the sports betting industry could see a five-fold increase in revenue by 2025 according to a report from Morgan Stanley, resources to educate the public or help problem gamblers are still lagging behind the industry’s growth.

State and organizational resources to combat problem gambling and its effects on individuals, families, and communities are significantly underfunded compared to other issues. For example, while substance abuse is roughly four times more common than problem gambling, it receives 334 times the funding problem gambling does.

As the gambling industry grows and becomes increasingly omnipresent and accessible in the U.S., its impact will be felt far and wide throughout our communities.

However, while states consider the ways they may benefit from legalizing sports betting, they must also recognize the risks that accompany sports betting, and the damage that can be done to the very communities they’re trying to improve. Policy makers and gaming industry stakeholders need to work together now to put resources in place for dealing with the fallout from problem gambling.

How Problem Gambling Impacts Sports

In 2018, the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) which had been implemented in 1992 thanks to former Senator Bill Bradley, who saw the gaming industry as a threat to sports integrity. The bill was overturned due to Tenth Amendment violations and this action now allows any state to implement legalized sports betting; an opportunity that has been fully utilized:

  • 24 states - including Puerto Rico and not-yet-operational Ohio - have approved full-scale, online sports betting (Tennessee only offers online betting)

  • Just 6% of sports betting legislation in the US includes problem gambling provisions

Again, legalized gambling is not inherently bad; however, it's important to have the right safety nets in place and to educate people about the risks and repercussions of problem gambling disorders.

Athletes in particular are at higher risk for developing some form of gambling addiction, partly due to the symbiotic nature of the sports and gaming industries, but also due to the mindset athletes must have in order to become successful in their sport. The desire to win is the primary driver both on and off the field — this supreme competitiveness, when transferred to gambling, can be harmful not only to the player, but their family, career, and overall athletic performance.

Mark Potter, who was a professional Rugby Union player from 1999 to 2011 in the UK and Ireland until a 12-year gambling disorder eventually ruined his sports career, has this to say about his experience:

"Gambling very much replicated the buzz and adrenaline of competing," he explains.

"After experiencing a big win at a young age, this only accelerated my need to bet bigger and more often, leading firstly to harmful behaviours such as loss chasing, but latterly a loss of career and subsequent suicide attempt.

"Looking back, a lack of education and awareness around the risks attached to gambling was a big driver in my descent to addiction.

"I always assumed that I would be able to win my way out of debt, again, linked to a naturally competitive edge due to my athletic background."

Mark's story, unfortunately, isn't unique. An untold number of athletes go through the same experiences to varying degrees, from collegiate athletes to superstars such as Michael Jordan and Alex Rodriguez. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that it isn't unique to one, or even a handful of sports, either:

  • Earlier this year, jockey Mychel Sanchez was suspended for betting on races.

  • Felipe Hernandez was also suspended recently for betting on Major League Soccer matches.

  • Evander Kane, from the San Jose Sharks, famously declared bankruptcy after revealing he is $26.8 million in debt.

  • Josh Shaw, a player for the Arizona Cardinals, was suspended for gambling.

But while other issues such as doping scandals overrun the headlines, gambling tends to get pushed behind the scenes despite the fact that Brian Hainline from the NCAA observed in 2013 that every four-year class since 1991 had experienced a major point-shaving scandal in college sports. The lack of a similar situation in more recent years shows that moves to educate athletes in the past decade have had a positive effect, but the vast explosion of newly-legalized opportunities to gamble in the U.S. mean that now is a key time to further reinforce those messages.

One Step at a Time: Forming Lasting Partnerships in Key Areas

EPIC Risk Management is founded and composed of people who are recovering from problem gambling habits, including ex-athletes. We know first-hand the stress and tragedy that's accompanied by a gambling disorder and strive to educate the masses on the topic by using data and personal lived experience.

While much of EPIC's work has been in the UK, we've recently expanded to the US by partnering with organizations that are most capable of educating their members about the risks associated with gambling. This includes the gaming industry as a whole, financiers, military organizations, etc. Most recently, we've partnered with local and national sports organizations such as the Chicago Fire FC, Fordham and Monmouth Universities, and the NCAA.

We've also been focused on educating US legislators by arming them with the most comprehensive data possible. Alongside Kindbridge, Entain Foundation US, and the National Association of Administrators of Disordered Gambling Services (NAADGS), we're supporting their efforts to conduct the largest problem gambling survey the US has seen since 2016. Among other things, this survey aims to establish state-by-state profiles of on-the-ground efforts to combat problem gambling, and provide insights about what more can be done to provide vital resources to those most at-risk.

Such massive and complex issues cannot be tackled alone, and that's why we band together with such crucial organizations to bring awareness and solutions to state and federal lawmakers as well as individual organizations.

How Gambling Harm Education Works

As gambling outlets become increasingly digitized and mobile-first, young people will have more access to gambling than ever before. Additionally, with highly-publicized advertisements for sports gambling and its normalization across broadcasting platforms, particularly in the case of fantasy football, young adults today are more exposed to gambling-related messaging than previous generations. Indeed, youth are four times more likely to be a person with gambling problems.

So there’s no question that an increase in awareness and education surrounding problem gambling is becoming necessary. In the U.S. alone, over 2 percent of residents between the ages 14 and 21 struggle with problem gambling, and over six percent are at risk. Many schools across the world have already started giving problem gambling the same attention as other high-risk activities.

EPIC Risk Management’s educational programs and training rely on evidence-based approaches to gambling education and harm mitigation. Programs such as the one being made available to NCAA athletes are delivered through in-person workshops and seminars, online video libraries, and other virtual resources.

By working with high-risk sectors such as elite athletic clubs, sports organizations, and youth who are exposed to and engaged with the sports ecosystem, our gambling harm educational resources provide at-risk populations with the resources they need to make responsible choices in relation to gambling.

Training and education programs will look at how individuals within these groups interact with gambling and gambling related messages, and help participants to better understand and mitigate the risks of problem gambling. Ultimately, education about gambling seeks to prevent athletes’ competitive natures from invading other areas of their lives off the field, so that if they make the choice to gamble, they’re better informed when they do so.

The Future is Bright for Gambling Harm Reduction

Legalized gambling in a market as big as the U.S. has the potential to do damage on a massive scale, ruin lives, and taint the joy of sports. However, it has a solution. Educating and training the public, athletes, and gaming industry stakeholders can help prevent problem gambling from happening in the first place.

Beginning with educating and informing the most vulnerable groups—youth, college students, and athletes—the U.S. can cultivate generations that understand gambling as they understand alcohol: it’s something that - for the majority - is generally safe in moderation, but can have terrible consequences when abused. Additionally, when problem gambling both shares that gravitas and is openly discussed, it opens the door for people to seek resources and help earlier.

For people to successfully find help and resources, they must first be in place. With tax revenue surging in from the gambling industry, states need to introduce policy to redirect more funding to programs and resources that assist problem gamblers. Louisiana, for example, has comprehensive problem gambling treatments available to residents for free. Similar programs can be replicated across the country in states receiving cash-injections from the burgeoning gambling industry.

EPIC Risk Management works to a value proposition of ‘preventing gambling from harming people and organizations’ and is dedicated to helping individuals and institutions across the U.S. and the world achieve these goals. Using the knowledge, insight and understanding that personal experience brings to improve lives, we strive to build resiliency and awareness through evidence-based education, policy and regulation consultation, and riveting accounts of lived experience.

We partner with incredible organizations like the NFL Players’ Association, the NCAA, and Chicago Fire FC to amplify our message and strengthen their stakeholders. By continually pursuing our goals of education and harm reduction, we can create a gaming environment that’s safer and fairer.