This op-ed was first published on March 9, 2023.
As the college basketball regular season comes to a close, millions of Americans will soon be filling out their NCAA tournament brackets in hopes of winning a share of the $3+ billion that will be wagered during the three weeks of March Madness.
As a lifelong compulsive sports bettor myself, I think it’s important to promote awareness about the fact that March is also Problem Gambling Awareness Month. For many people, what appears to be an innocent gesture of placing a $10 wager in an office pool can easily spiral out of control—no matter if they win or lose. It’s crucial that we learn how to recognize the signs of addiction early on to help stave off potential disaster.
Gambling addiction is the most insidious scourge of our time. Whereas the awful effects of fentanyl and other hard drugs can be seen daily on city streets, losing gamblers often hide in plain sight while friends and family remain oblivious. Years may pass before one day, the erosion which has silently been eating away at the gambler’s secret life finally brings the facade crashing down.
When the problem gambler is exposed for the first time, his personal acquaintances are often shocked and appalled. They wonder, “How could he lie to us like that, over and over, for so long? And how were we so easily fooled?”
The fact is that no gambler ever expects things to turn out this way. They’ll rationalize away a lost bet, and then double down to help make up for it—but of course, that rarely pays off. And unlike the heroin user, there is no possibility of a fatal overdose to stop the cycle. So the dice roll on…
As bad as compulsive gambling has gotten over the past decade since smartphones made the process of placing wagers so convenient, the recent spate of legalized betting across the country means that this vice is here to stay. The time is now for us to have our say! Our task and our responsibility is to get out in front of the issue now—before we have a runaway train on our hands.
That means being vocal about our concerns regarding the dangers lurking on the horizon for unsuspecting would-be bettors. We’ve got to engage with universities and encourage them to protect students from being preyed upon by the online sportsbooks which make gambling seem so exciting. Because what’s the point of working so hard to earn a four-year undergraduate degree—which usually comes with its own share of loans to pay back—when a mountain of gambling debts can cripple the future prospects of a young adult who’s just getting started out in the world?
I have seen the devastating effects of gambling addiction in all their many forms. From the sickening shame experienced by those who bear the weight of hidden guilt, to the victims scarred by betrayal after betrayal… the toll this menace claims goes far beyond dollars and cents. We are talking about shattered relationships, broken families, and ultimately lost souls.
But there is a way forward. By communicating openly and making a plan, addictive personalities can slowly work their way out of the isolated pit they’ve fallen into. Routine counseling sessions, a steady diet of healthy and meaningful commitments, and holding oneself accountable for both words and deeds—this is the necessary hard work that paves the road to recovery.
If you or someone you care about needs help addressing problem gambling, qualified professionals are standing by ready to lend a hand. Addiction should not and cannot be conquered alone.