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The rising human cost of sports betting

About 2% of Americans, roughly 6.6 million people, struggle with gambling addiction, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. A growing number bet on sports.

By: New York Times |
Updated: January 31, 2022 11:28:27 am
gambling addict, teven Delaney A silhouette of Steven Delaney, a recovering gambling addict, in his office, where he hosts a podcast aimed at helping other addicted gamblers turn their lives around, in Ballston Spa, N.Y., Jan. 29, 2022. The ends of the college and pro football seasons were already a perilous time for people recovering from a gambling addiction, but then came the onslaught of ads for legal sports betting. (Cindy Schultz/The New York Times)

By Kurt Streeter

We’re heading toward the Super Bowl, a time of joy and anticipation for most sports fans. But not for all. Certainly not for Steven Delaney. He has no plans to watch the big game. Watching sports of any kind could suck him back in.

“I stay away from it all,” Delaney, 37, a truck driver from Ballston Spa, New York, said last week. “I don’t talk about sports. I don’t read about sports. I don’t want to know about the teams in the Super Bowl. It’s a risk that I am not ready to take.”

“I can lose everything,” he added.

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Delaney battles addiction. His compulsion, which nearly ruined his life: betting on sports. He is hardly alone. About 2% of Americans, roughly 6.6 million people, struggle with gambling addiction, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. A growing number bet on sports.

The floodgates opened in 2018 when the Supreme Court cut down a 1992 federal law that limited sports betting primarily to Nevada.

Now, about 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico allow sports gambling either online or in person. That means about 30% of Americans can place a legal wager on the Super Bowl where they live. In November, California residents will vote on whether to open their state to sports betting.

Steven Delaney Steven Delaney, a recovering gambling addict, with his wife, Kelly, at their home in Ballston Spa, N.Y., Jan. 29, 2022. The ends of the college and pro football seasons were already a perilous time for people recovering from a gambling addiction, but then came the onslaught of ads for legal sports betting. (Cindy Schultz/The New York Times) .

Wagering on sports is “endemic and acceptable and so mainstream that it is now a major pillar of American entertainment,” said Timothy Fong, one of the directors of the gambling studies program at UCLA.

“The question,” he continued, “is what kind of impact is this going to have on our mental health, on our public health?”

Most of us can put some money down, have some fun and walk away unscathed. But not everyone.

When I reached out last week to nearly a dozen people as old as 82 and as young as 17 in recovery for sports gambling addiction, I heard horror stories. They told me about shattered families, lost jobs and foreclosed homes. They spoke of arrests, convictions, jail time and suicide. I heard how dangerous this time of the year is: the end of the college football season, the NFL playoffs, all the money that can be won on the Super Bowl, or, more likely, lost.

Delaney won’t be watching. “Not after all that I went through,” he said.

A former New York Jets fan who once had a podcast to discuss the team, Delaney developed a fantasy sports betting habit in 2007 with casual games against friends. It turned into an obsession by 2019. “It was all very accessible from my phone,” he said. “I started doing it compulsively. I would win $5,000 and say, ‘Now I know what I am doing.’ So then I would bet bigger and bigger. I would lose big and start chasing to get it back.

“It was like two people in my brain. Now I realize it was the addiction trying to fight against whoever I really am. I’d stop. Then I would say to myself: ‘I have to get this money back. I have to get back to zero before my wife finds out and my family finds out.’”

Steven Delaney, gambling addict Steven Delaney, a recovering gambling addict, in his office, where he hosts a podcast aimed at helping other addicted gamblers turn their lives around, in Ballston Spa, N.Y., Jan. 29, 2022. The ends of the college and pro football seasons were already a perilous time for people recovering from a gambling addiction, but then came the onslaught of ads for legal sports betting. (Cindy Schultz/The New York Times)

He found the addiction easy to hide at first. Delaney said his wife, Kelly, could sit at his side but be unaware he was gambling away the family 401(k) on his phone.

His last bet came May 2, 2021. Kelly caught him after reading an email about his account from a casino site. “It felt like a relief,” he said. Tired of lying and putting on a show that all was fine, he committed to counseling and Gamblers Anonymous. He even has a new podcast, “Fantasy or Reality? The GPP” (an abbreviation for the Gambling Problem Podcast), which focuses on helping addicted gamblers turn their lives around.

How did we get to a point where wagering on sports became so seductive and encompassing?

It seems like every time we turn on the television or look at the internet, we are blitzed by ads hyping legalized sports betting and online casinos.

Sports betting advertisements now bolster the bottom line for holders of broadcast rights, with their commercials popping up during game stoppages and branded drops read on air by analysts who gush about parlays and point spreads as part of the game action.

Casino ads can be spotted in all corners of the biggest stadiums. You can place bets on games inside stadiums in Arizona and several other states, and some venues have even sold their naming rights to betting operations.

That’s a far cry from the hard-line stance against gambling the biggest pro sports leagues maintained for decades. Football, basketball and baseball all steered well clear of the gambling world, partly out of fear players would get hooked and end up throwing games to win big or clear debts with bookies.

In 1976, Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s commissioner, said this: “Legalized gambling on sporting events are destructive to the sports themselves and in the long run injurious to the public.”

In 2012, the current NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, said this: “It’s a very strongly held view in the NFL — it has been for decades — that the threat that gambling could occur in the NFL or fixing of games or that any outcome could be influenced by the outside could be very damaging to the NFL and very difficult to ever recover from.”

In 2015, he was still singing that tune: “We oppose gambling. I don’t anticipate us changing that going forward.”

Hypocrites. Now, sports leagues and media companies walk in step with the casinos, all the way to the bank with multimillion-dollar partnerships.

The bitter truth of addiction is obscured by the smarmy ads and compromising relationships, and yet federal oversight is downright nonexistent.

Think about it. After years of consumer lawsuits and investigations that showed the tobacco industry was doing all it could to get people hooked on a deadly product, the Food and Drug Administration severely limited cigarette advertising: The last Marlboro Man commercial aired in 1999. You cannot buy a pack of cigarettes without being confronted by a label warning that smoking can lead to cancer, lung disease, diabetes or other terrible diseases.

But if you tune in during Super Bowl week, be ready to ingest an unrelenting stream of carnival barker ads. They will gush over how you can wager during the game on everything from the coin toss to who will be the first receiver to catch a pass. They will hype the fun of parlay bets and so-called risk-free bets, which are not risk free at all.

There’s a cost. It can devastate.

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)

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