Number One” does not always refer to a champion.
Just ask the gaming world.
To the National Center for Responsible Gaming, one is the percentage of college-age gamblers bound for serious trouble. That’s nearly 100,000 students either falling behind in studies, owing others money or facing personal problems. That’s almost 100,000 potential cases of fraud, theft, violence, drug abuse and crime.
Gaming operators have several reasons to “look out for No. 1.”
Altruistically, they wish to help people deal with addictions. Strategically, they want to avoid paying fines for underage players or get stuck with markers from adult gamblers.
The industry funds the NCRG, which spent more than half a million dollars in research last year and launched the www.collegegambling.org website last March. This year, the organization expands its communication efforts on the high-profile stage of college basketball’s national championship tournament. As March Madness dawns, it reminds universities of the research and hopes to increase the percentage of those with gambling policies above its current 22 percent.
For responsible gamblers and Las Vegas casinos, the multimillion-dollar, three-week revenue feeding fest defines the end of the college basketball season. But away from the limelight—spread picks launched like three-pointers and prop bets slam-dunked onto betting stations—the NCRG seeks to address a captive audience of perhaps 9 million people, the estimated three-quarters of college students who gamble.
Its message: Control your gambling. But if you can’t, there is help. Online. On the telephone. In your college’s wellness center. Don’t be isolated.
“We are concerned about the 1 percent,” says Christine Reilly, the NCRG’s senior research director and a member of its organization since 1996. “We want them to know about good prevention methods. So many people who have had a major gambling problem started very young. Some of the issues that crop up in gamblers are parallel to drug use. You have difficulty stopping. You need to gamble more, just as you would require more drugs, in order to get the required mood.
“It impacts friendships and it can ruin families.”
Indeed, a 2007 USA Today story says murders have occurred over March Madness gambling debts. As knowledge of gambling disorders evolves—equating it with other addictions, finding professional treatment, etc.—college gambling becomes ever more studied.
Getting A Handle On It
The NCRG is the nation’s only organization devoted to funding research to analyze pathological and youth gambling disorders, and to determine treatment methods.
“We need to provide more information for parents and administrators to see what kids are getting themselves into and help them find resources to deal with it,” says Alan Feldman, the new chairman of the NCRG and the senior vice president of public affairs for MGM Resorts International. Feldman also has three students in college.
“Information can be utilized in many ways,” he says. “School officials, for instance, can notify the parents of the student about his gambling. Or, if a parent is aware that his son or daughter is hung over, the parent can also ask, ‘Are you also gambling? Do you need any money?’ And ‘Why are you gambling? What’s wrong?’
“It raised a red flag to me when a 2003 study determined that really, for the first time, there was a clear correlation between students’ binge drinking and students gambling.”
Gaming operators know that the research labels lotteries, card games and small-stakes gambling, not sports betting, as the biggest sources of abuse on campus. Online gambling is rising, however. Onlinepoker.net estimates that 400,000 students play poker online every week.
The online play brings another variable into focus. Compulsive gambling may have a neurological origin, rather than representing a personality disorder.
“Some people have a real ambivalence going on,” Reilly says. “It is not so much denial, but part of them remembering how good it felt to get high or win money. They may have the kind of wiring in their brain that makes it difficult for them to feel good unless they win money. If they are losing money, it can lead to all kinds of problems. Schools can integrate the information into their overall policies.
“Some schools have councils that focus on all risky behavior,” Reilly says. “Gambling is just another risky behavior, along with binge drinking, drug use or unprotected sex. You have to build programs around the fact that many college kids do not have a fully formed adult brain yet.”
The college programs include the involvement of health professionals. Treatment can range from medication to awareness and supervision.
A Frank Assessment
But first, there is self-awareness.
“Excellent evidence suggests gambling was around as far back as the Egyptians and the Pharaohs,” says Michael Frank, a psychology professor at Richard Stockton College, 20 miles outside America’s East Coast gambling capital of Atlantic City. “You can’t create a world in which this isn’t happening. Even today, despite the good efforts of casinos to deny underage gamblers, everybody, it seems, has a fake ID. As good as these companies try to be with their casino guards stopping people, most of the casinos are completely porous. Most of them have multiple entrances. On a busy Saturday night, how can you keep people out?”
An underage patron can probably find as much trouble as he wants. He can then enter a world filled with numbers, but one in which few people can read the score.
“Most gamblers remember their wins and forget their losses,” Frank says. “One telephone survey reached out to thousands of gamblers—compulsive, casual and serious.
“About 70 percent of them said they were either winning or breaking even. How is that possible? (The casino industry would perish under such a reality.) Are they lying? No. They are misremembering.”
Frank said the college proportion of addictive behavior mirrors that of overall society. He also noted that 20 percent of college students smoke, despite what is now five decades aimed at revealing the harm of smoking.
“Clearly, it is self-destructive; there is nothing good that comes out of it, so why do people still do it?” Frank remarked. “You tell me.”
Frank has served as the director of research for the New Jersey Governor’s Commission on Gambling, and was quoted extensively in a Sports Illustrated story on this subject several years ago. Noting that most people gamble without problems, he adds that while someone “can limp along” with alcoholism for several years, gambling addictions are “episodic,” resulting in more dramatic behavior and the need for some players to immediately slam on the brakes.
How does one put all the pieces together? Treatment centers help, yes. So does overall awareness and peer pressure. Medication may also help. Ultimately, however, the individual must be strong.
“Treatment can begin with an honest conversation with a friend, a family member or a mental health professional,” Frank says. “For some, however, the ultimate solution will have to be abstinence. It’s the same for them as it is for someone addicted to drinking, or drugs. Some people will just have to realize they can’t do it—that maybe it’s nobody’s fault, but they just can’t do gamble; it is what it is.”
That remark has special significance for athletes. Many school officials, aware of point-shaving scandals of the past, insist that athletes are held to a higher standard than the rest of the student body when it concerns gambling. Yet athletes are often more prone to wagering, because they have connections, and the case involving Art Schlichter turned disastrous.
Schlichter, the fair-haired quarterback, nearly led Ohio State to the 1979 NCAA championship. His association with gamblers began at a harness racing track. The university felt it lacked sufficient evidence to discipline him, and his troubles deepened. He was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and gambled away his entire signing bonus by mid-season.
During the 1982 NFL strike, he lost $700,000. By the time he was released, the total was over $1 million. He filed for bankruptcy, lost his wife and was later booted out of the Arena Football League. In a 2007 interview on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Schlichter said he stole about $1.5 million and committed approximately 20 felonies. He served 10 years in prison and was convicted for gambling inside jail.
Schlichter’s troubles continue. Last September, he was sentenced to 10 more years in prison for a million-dollar ticket scam.
On the flip side of the schizophrenia, he remains a celebrity in much of Ohio, started his own gambling awareness organization and spoke out against a proposed casino in Ohio.
The extreme behavior indicates how people need tools, as well as discipline, to avoid being overrun. Would research from an organization like NCRG have helped him years ago?
“Sure, it could have,” Feldman says. “People would have been aware that a player gambling is something that deserves extra attention. The awareness of people around him could conceivably have helped. There could have been an intervention from peers, the idea of ‘hey, you shouldn’t be doing this,’ and that might have turned into ‘we need to see someone about this.’ The idea would be to put as many potential gates in the road as possible.”
One of gaming’s earliest gates was the slogan “Bet With Your Head, Not Over It.” Over the years, it added elements like voluntary opt-outs, in which patrons come forth and become excluded from playing. Other forms of addressing the problem may originate on the gaming floor itself.
“It could be something as simple as a dealer saying to a player, ‘You’re not having a good time,’” Feldman says. “Have a floor boss give a comp for something to eat. Maybe that alone would stop some people.”
The toxic effect of college gambling can later poison the waters of legalized, structured gambling. Impulsive, excessive gambling is a “seven-out” for all concerned.
“This is not a make-believe concept,” Feldman says. “It is not a simple behavioral issue. This is a serious physiological and neurological phenomenon. It really exists for some people, and the consequences can be devastating.”
It’s no picnic for casinos, either.
“Our business thrives on people having fun,” Feldman says. “Nothing good can come from someone who spends their last dollar.”
Problem gamblers create both negative advertising for gaming and desperate situations for themselves.
“A guy losing all his money may destroy a family or commit a crime,” Feldman indicates. “There is no way to turn that around into anything that benefits us. It’s a negative drag. We are in a cash business. We can’t come and take the car back (as in a repossessed vehicle). And people can sense it. You hear about a person’s gambling problem and how it affects family and co-workers; it’s not a healthy situation.”
Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
The misdeeds of gamblers often contradict the rest of their lives.
How else to explain Schlichter, both a hero and degenerate? How else to explain Las Vegas Monsignor Kevin McAuliffe pleading guilty last October to stealing $650,000 from his parish in order to gamble? And, along the way, intervening to help another gambler fight his own addiction.
Even as McAuliffe faced the prospect of 60 years in prison, his video poker-induced plight evoked sympathy from parishioners. Baseball legend Pete Rose could not contain his gambling and it has kept him out of the Hall of Fame. Leonard Tose, an NFL owner, lost the Philadelphia Eagles because he dropped nearly $50 million gambling. And what did he do? He unsuccessfully sued an Atlantic City casino, claiming it encouraged him to drink and play.
That’s another reason gaming operators don’t need a problem patron.
Most reported gambling disorders involve men, but women face the same factors, and anyone with money and the urge to play can encounter a problem.
“Everybody loves a gambler,” the famous American football coach, the late Vince Lombardi, once said, “until he loses.”
These days, people still love a gambler—even after he loses.
But the love must often be tough.
PROBLEM GAMBLING CHECKLIST
The NCRG, Gamblers Anonymous, health professionals and gaming executives offer their assessment on when it’s time to realize the presence of problem gambling. These questions pertain to those viewpoints.
It’s time to obtain professional help if you answer yes to at least five of the following questions:
Did you ever lose work or school time from gambling?
Did gambling make your home life unhappy?
Did you ever gamble to win money to pay debts?
Did losing make you want to return quickly to get it back?
Do you often gamble until your last dollar is spent?
Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
Do you gamble to escape problems?
Have you ever contemplated suicide in the aftermath of gambling?
Have you ever suffered a loss of self-control in the middle of gambling, e.g., throwing drinks or slamming a glass off the table?
Have you ever taken a cash advance in order to chase your losses? (Many carry an interest rate of more than 30 percent.)
Do you drink more than you normally would while playing?
Has more than one person ever told you that you cannot control your gambling?
Have you ever missed a rent or mortgage payment because of gambling?
Have you ever committed an illegal act to finance gambling?
Have you experienced high blood pressure for an extended time after playing?
AUTHOR’S TIPS FOR THOSE LEGALLY ALLOWED TO PLAY
• Avoid the campus bookie. A. It’s illegal. B. It’s one thing to like “action,” but bookies provide more than you need and may come after you, with force, if you cannot pay in a timely manner.
• Be wary of excessive adrenaline rushes if you play legally online or go to a legal establishment. The rush of “action” may quicken your heartbeat, raise your blood pressure and prompt a much faster pace of play. This also enhances the likelihood of losing big rather than just losing.
• Pace yourself. Five minutes of crazy betting can negate two hours of discipline and ruin an otherwise fine experience.
• Walk away a loser. With no more than you came to play. Many continue to play for reasons that exceed the thrill of action. Their ego won’t allow them to admit defeat. Remember that a small loss will enable you to return sooner. A big loss puts you on the sidelines.
• Leave the credit card home.
• Leave the ATM card home.
• Leave your ego home.
• Gamble only with money that fits into the entertainment category. Set a gambling budget for a time period and view it only as entertainment dollars lost. Once that money is gone, stay away until a new budget has been funded.
• Don’t be jealous of other people’s gambling stories. They are laced with as much selective memory as yours.
• Walk it off. Evaluate your temper after gambling setbacks. If you are mad, stay away from loved ones and don’t drive. Determine how long it takes to get over a gambling loss
• And like anything else, if you are no longer having fun, STOP. Almost anyone can live with a small gambling disappointment. The key is to prevent that from becoming large.