UPDATE (Feb. 11, 2024, 11:10 p.m. E.T.):?Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to victory over the San Francisco 49ers, 25-22, in overtime. This is Mahomes’ third Super Bowl win.
At NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s Super Bowl press conference, the commissioner smiled and laughed with host Tracy Wolfson as they marveled at this year’s host city. Las Vegas, Wolfson noted, “was taboo for so many decades with the NFL” because of its association with sports betting.
I wonder if Goodell would have smiled if he had a family member who was a compulsive gambler. Nearly 68 million Americans plan to bet on this year’s Super Bowl, according to research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming. The firm projects that 1 in 4 U.S. adults will wager a staggering $23.1 billion, after $16 billion in bets last year. Of those 68 million, I wonder how many future addicted gamblers will place their first-ever bet on this game. Super Bowl Sunday for a compulsive gambler is like New Year’s Eve for an alcoholic. Nearly 7 million Americans suffer from gambling addiction, and since the Supreme Court legalized the practice in 2018, states and sportsbooks have cashed in.
I know what it’s like to be laid low by gambling addiction. I began betting on sports and horses as a teenager; by 1961, in my mid-20s and fresh off Army Reserve duty, I owed $4,000 and had no job. I was lucky that credit cards did not exist, or else my debts would have been even larger. Again and again, I resolved to stop, only to quickly return to the action. By the time I did finally stop, in 1968, I owed my yearly pay three times over.
In the decades since, my wife, Sheila, and I have helped compulsive gamblers and made presentations on gambling addiction to local officials and gaming companies. Over the years, I have helped many college and professional athletes who had a gambling problem. One had a few Super Bowl rings.
But the rise in sports gambling on the internet and phone has accelerated the prevalence of gambling addiction. The ease with which people can access online sports gambling platforms is frightening. You can now bet your life savings — and more — without leaving your home. And not only can you bet on whether your local teams win or how many points they score, you can bet on every drive, every kick and every serve of different sports all around the world, effectively every hour of every day of every year. For the Super Bowl, overseas sportsbooks are even offering bets on how often TV cameras will cut away to pop star Taylor Swift, or whether her boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, will propose to her.
So many young people in particular are getting addicted to gambling. Young men are by far the biggest share among sports bettors in the U.S. It’s easier today for a young person to place a bet than to buy a can of beer or a pack of smokes. It’s getting so bad that I get calls almost every day from mothers and fathers looking for help for their kids.
Sometimes the parents are thankful that their child is “only” addicted to gambling, not drugs or alcohol. But gambling addiction can be much worse than alcohol or drugs, even without the stench of liquor or the needle pricks that vividly mark those other addictions. Treatment for gambling addiction is uniquely challenging: There is no methadone or nicotine gum for gambling addicts, for example. Like other addictions, the earlier a person starts gambling, the greater the risk they will become a compulsive gambler. And the suicide rate of gamblers is higher than for other addictions.
But there is no dedicated federal funding for research into problem gambling. The states love it, as they are getting dollars from the gamblers. Just as they did with lotteries, politicians distract from the objections by insisting the money will pay for schools or other popular programs.
Nor is there any effort to restrict its visibility, the way tobacco ads have largely been banned. Sunday’s Super Bowl, like any sports broadcast today, will be filled with gambling ads. Even the media itself has bought in, with sponsorships by these companies and segments from the announcers themselves touting the latest lines.
Pretending a problem does not exist does not solve that problem. These sportsbooks bring in billions a year, while millions of lives are ruined. They depend upon compulsive gamblers, sucking them dry while misery mounts not just for themselves, but for their friends and families. As long as the toll of legalized sports betting remains unaddressed, we should measure its cost not in spreads beaten or dollars won, but in lives broken and even lost.