By Hugh C. McBride
Addiction is a disease that knows no holiday, but certain times of the year may be more difficult than others. For example, alcoholics may feel a stronger urge to drink on New Year’s Eve, and individuals with compulsive eating disorders may have a particularly troublesome time during “feast” days such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For compulsive gamblers, external pressures may be at their greatest during the first three months of the year, starting with the college football bowl games, progressing through the final rounds of the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl, and culminating in the two-week hoops-fest that is officially known as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Though all high-profile sports events can pose problems for compulsive gamblers, the basketball tournament may be more worrisome because of the degree to which gambling has become an accepted part of mainstream culture (through the omnipresent “bracket pool”) and the convergence of high-profile gambling and college campuses.
Often marketed under the moniker “March Madness,” the NCAA tournament squeezes 64 games into 11 action-packed days spread across three weekends.
In addition to featuring many of the nation’s premiere amateur athletes and most rabid fans, the tournament also commands considerable attention from the nation’s gamblers, who wager millions of dollars each year. Many will place bets on the tournament through legal sports books in Nevada, while others will turn to online sports gambling sites (which remain illegal under U.S. law) or to local bookmakers (also illegal).
In terms of the number of gamblers, though, the most popular form of wagering on the NCAA basketball tournament is probably the bracket pool, which entices participants to predict the outcome of all 64 games before the tourney tips off. Appealing to both experienced gamblers and those with little more (and often less) than a passing interest in the games themselves, bracket pools proliferate in workplaces, dormitories, and websites.
Entry fees are often little more than a few dollars, and the pools are usually viewed as harmless fun among friends and coworkers, with the potential for financial windfall trailing bragging rights and camaraderie as reasons for participating. But experts are concerned that the bracket pool’s prevalence may lure new gamblers into an unhealthy addiction while serving as a trigger to those who are attempting to gain or retain control over their compulsive gambling.
“Ten percent of the people who report a problem gambling have indicated they came through sports gambling and that March Madness was a real major factor,” Reece Middleton, executive director of the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling, said in a March 20, 2008 article on the website of the Indiana Problem Gambling Awareness Program.
In the same article, Tim Otteman of Central Michigan University noted that bracket pools can serve as a gateway to compulsion or addiction.
“No one becomes an alcoholic before they have their first drink, and no one becomes a drug addict before they smoke their first joint,” Otteman said. “Similarly, no one becomes addicted to gambling on sports before they make their first bet. And, frequently, the first bet is filling out a bracket for the NCAA tournament.”
The NCAA itself is aware of the problems related to gambling and college sports, and has taken steps to discourage the behaviors.
NCAA athletes and coaches are prohibited from participating in pools that require a financial entry fee, and the organization distributes a brochure titled “Don’t Bet On It” to help ensure that all athletes are aware of the ban on gambling.
However, the problem is hardly limited to athletes, coaches, and other members of a school’s sports department. According to information on the Villanova University website, experts believe that about 5 to 9 percent of male college students have a problem with gambling, as do 1 to 2 percent of female students.
The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) reports that gambling may be particularly attractive to young people for the following reasons:
• Young people often live “in the moment” and desire diversions that will provide them with an emotional rush that keeps them attentive and engaged.
• Young people are technologically savvy and comfortable in online environments, where gambling flourishes.
• Young people are in a developmental stage that encourages risk-taking behaviors.
• Young people enjoy playing games in which physical presence or strength is unimportant, and the “skill” of analyzing the situation and picking a winner is all that matters.
When young people are placed in a situation where gambling is something that “everybody is doing” (which often feels like the case in the run-up to March Madness), the environment may be conducive to the beginning of an unhealthy habit, or a return to a once-defeated compulsion.
Villanova University reports that the following signs are indicative of a gambling problem:
• Being preoccupied or obsessed with gambling (to the point of neglecting matters such as one’s studies, work, and relationships).
• Experiencing a need to bet more money more frequently.
• Becoming restless or irritable when not able to gamble, or when attempting to stop.
• Continuing to gamble despite serious negative consequences.
Among college students, compulsive gambling is more common among men than women, and is often accompanied by other unhealthy behaviors, including binge drinking and drug abuse. Compulsive gamblers are usually initially enticed by the rush of placing a bet and the euphoria of winning, but the behavior eventually morphs into a desperate attempt to “chase” losses by wagering increasingly larger amounts of money in order to remain solvent.
According to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, the descent into compulsive gambling is often accompanied by the following symptoms:
• Spending money one doesn’t have, which includes running up large credit card debts.
• Lying about one’s behavior, and denying the impact of one’s gambling.
• Rationalizing the problem away (for example, claiming that losses “aren’t that bad” or that one’s gambling is just a fun way to blow off steam).
• Borrowing (or stealing) from friends and relatives.
• Committing crimes in order to finance one’s gambling or pay off one’s debts.
• Failing in school, or performing significantly lower than usual, to the point where dropping out is a serious consideration.
• Becoming depressed and having thoughts of suicide.
Professional intervention for compulsive gambling often involves cognitive-behavioral therapy, which may be conducted on an outpatient basis or in a residential setting. Some recovering gamblers follow a 12-Step model similar to that which was established by Alcoholics Anonymous, while others rely on a more informal support network in order to remain in control of their compulsions.
For college students, on-campus counseling services are an ideal source of additional information about compulsive gambling, while non-students should consult with their doctor, contact a local mental health organization, or educate themselves further online.
Regardless of your situation, if you or someone you know is struggling with problem gambling, know that help for compulsive gambling is available, long-term recovery is achievable, and a healthier future is within your grasp.