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Betting on Health: How Sports Gambling Affects Us

By Martha Michael

Health Risks of Gambling

If you’re a football fan you probably started off the year doing your favorite thing -- watching gridiron matchups -- and maybe seeing if you won some side bets when you nailed the point spread. Millions tune in and make wagers on the Super Bowl, March Madness, and other games, particularly now that sports betting has increased in popularity. What used to be limited to bookies, or sports books in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, is now available on your smartphone. Unfortunately, it’s led to greater access for problem gamblers who have trouble setting limits.

Sports Gambling

Nearly 20 percent of Americans will bet on an NFL game this season, according to an article on Props.com, citing a survey by the American Gaming Association. It could be something as simple as a “proposition” or prop bet, such as who will win the coin toss at the Super Bowl or who will score first, but there are many who don’t stop with the one-off bet on the big game. Approximately 15 million people will place bets casually, with friends or through fantasy sports or football pools, while 32 million bettors will place their bets at a casino, online, or through a bookie.

The number of bettors using a bookie has steadily declined -- from 18 percent in 2020 to 13 percent in 2022. It’s most common in states where betting is largely illegal, which is now fewer than 20, as more than 30 states allow sports gambling. The number of people betting on NFL games has more than doubled in the last two years, mostly because of the rise in online sports betting platforms.

Wagering on sports really took off when the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, according to an article in Forbes. That decision lifted nationwide limitations on sports gambling activities. Between loosening laws and the resulting flurry of ad campaigns, legal sports betting is easier to access than ever before and the rise in compulsive gambling is a natural consequence.

What is Compulsive Gambling?

If you like to dip your toe in the water with a side bet during playoffs or the Super Bowl, you probably aren’t in danger of losing the farm over the outcome of a football game. There are some sports fans, however, who find it hard to stop gambling and eventually become addicted.

The DSM5, or the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, includes “gambling disorder” as a mental health problem requiring treatment by professionals. Though placing wagers on sporting events seems vastly different from addiction to drugs or alcohol, the compulsive behavior is similar.

“These are actual addictions,” says Anthony Tennyson, co-founder and CEO of Awakn [sic] Life Sciences. “You have substance addictions, where one can end up with a physical craving, but it's actually not the physical craving that is one of the main drivers. It's actually the learned repetitive addictive behavior that drives people towards repeatedly consuming addictive substances.”

Compulsive gambling, like other addictions, causes changes to the brain’s reward system. The mid-level part of your brain that controls drive gets larger and overpowers the upper section, the center of cognitive function. Like addiction to substances, sometimes the habit can lead to a desperate financial situation or other issues.

What to Do If You Have a Gambling Problem

There’s more at stake than the stereotypical broken legs from an unpaid bookie. When you gamble with increasing amounts of money it adds to your stress, which can lead to long-term complications such as high blood pressure.

For some people, there’s also a link between gambling and mental health issues. Individuals with personality disorders such as narcissism or schizophrenia have higher rates of pathological gambling. Addicts have more relationship problems and a higher risk of suicide than people without the same struggles.

If you enjoy sports betting but wonder if you like it a little too much, you can compare your behavior with symptoms of compulsive gambling laid out by the Mayo Clinic:

  • Ruminating over placing bets and obsessing about how to get more gambling money
  • Finding previous levels of gambling dull and requiring more money to obtain the same thrill
  • Getting irritated when you reduce your access to betting
  • Using gambling as an escape to handle negative emotions such as guilt or depression
  • Hiding an excess of gambling debts by lying to loved ones
  • Putting relationships or a job at risk due to gambling
  • Needing family members to bail you out or borrowing money to pay gambling debts

Preventing problematic gambling is a challenge but if you like betting on your favorite teams, make sure the amount of time and money you’re spending is reasonable. Too much of almost anything can upset your balance and affect your overall well-being.

If you feel you’re losing control over your gambling or developing an anxiety disorder, seek out talk therapy or reach out to groups with resources such as Gamblers Anonymous (here are phone numbers by state).

What used to be in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Sports wagering is everywhere with increasing availability online. An unchecked gambling addiction creates personal drama rather than leaving the excitement on the field.

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