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Addiction: Is Sports Betting a Problem? Take the Over

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By Genevieve Cunningham

Addiction & Sports Betting

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This is a well known quote from a beloved American and iconic coach, Vince Lombardi. He is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in American sports history. And for good reason. Not everyone gets a trophy -- no, an icon -- named after them. But Vince Lombardi did. The Vince Lombardi Trophy goes to the winner of the Super Bowl every year.

Although this is a great quote with great intention, it’s this precise feeling that gets many people into trouble. The need to win. When winning is the result of hard work and team cohesion, it’s a beautiful thing to behold, and an even better thing to be a part of. But when winning comes at any cost, it loses its luster.

Enter the world of sports betting. Sports betting, just like winning, can be fun and exciting. Until it’s not. For those stuck in the throes of sports betting, winning feels like the only thing. And if they have to bet more to win more, they’ll do it, consequences or not. But is that really what Lombardi meant? Not likely. Is sports betting safe? Can we bet and win without the addiction? Or are we setting ourselves up for the loss of a lifetime?

How Prevalent is Addiction to Sports Betting?

Sports betting is growing fast. Since 2018, when the Supreme Court removed the ban that forbade states from authorizing betting on sports games, sports betting has risen by 10 times. It’s estimated that approximately 50 million Americans bet on the Super Bowl alone, and this doesn’t include any playoff games, regular season games, exhibition games, fantasy leagues, or other sports -- the Final Four NCAA men’s basketball tournament rivals the Super Bowl. But, I’ll raise you a fact even more interesting: The sports betting market is in the billions.

You read that right. Billions. With a B.

But what about addiction? Just because someone gambles, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have an addiction. Research suggests that a little over 6 million people in the United States suffer from a gambling problem. Unfortunately, this number probably isn’t very accurate. Studies on addiction suggest that only about 10 percent of people dealing with gambling addiction actually seek treatment. This would mean that the actual number of addicts is much, much higher.

Why Do People Become Addicted?

If you’re among this group of addicts, this number may not surprise you. For the rest of us, the number is a bit baffling -- and startling. How do people become addicted? And to gambling, of all things? The answer is complicated. When it comes to addiction of any kind, a few risk factors are commonly spotted.

  • History of abuse - Many addicts have a history of abuse and a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
  • It’s in the family - Researchers are unsure whether there’s a true genetic marker for addiction, but they’ve definitely noticed that addicts are more likely to have offspring who are also addicts. It might be as simple as “like father, like son.”
  • Early exposure - The earlier a person is exposed to the addictive substance or behavior, the more likely they are to develop a problem.

Another factor for gambling addiction is the barrier to entry. Betting on sports is easier than ever, especially with the introduction of things like fantasy football and other fantasy sports. You want to bet on a game? Or a player’s stats? Or the spread? All you have to do is join an online sportsbook like the well-known DraftKings or FanDuel. That’s it; you’re ready to go all-in.

Making it even easier to fall into the trap of gambling problems, being addicted to gambling comes with much less stigma than being addicted to drugs. We all know that drugs are bad, but gambling is just innocent fun, right? It’s nothing more than poker night with the guys. It’s not going to hurt anything. But unfortunately, gambling addiction can have massive negative effects on life and a person’s overall well-being. Unlike drug, alcohol, and tobacco addiction, there are currently no federal funds designated for problem gambling treatment or research, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling in 2023.

What Are the Symptoms of Sports Betting Addiction?

Not everyone who chooses to gamble on sports develops an addiction. In fact, most people don’t. When addiction does occur, it may come with some of the following symptoms:

  • Becoming secretive or outright lying - Problem gamblers often know they have a problem, and so they’ll try to hide it. They may try to be very secretive about their behavior, and in time, they may outright lie about what they’re doing and where the money is going.
  • Irritability - Moods may swing wildly, based specifically on whether or not their bets are successful, or whether or not they’re able to place any bets on any given day.
  • Guilt and shame - This very often comes with gambling. It’s exciting until the money disappears, at which point guilt and shame take its place.
  • Financial strain - This is usually one of the first signs that people notice. When a person reaches the point of massive financial strain, it’s likely time to seek professional help.

What Are the Consequences of Sports Betting Addiction?

The consequences to sports betting addiction can be severe. When people get sucked into the gambling lifestyle, they often eventually find their relationships suffer. Loved ones are initially supportive, but as the hole grows deeper, relationships might be strained beyond repair.

The addict may also find their work life suffers. Addiction can’t see reason. It doesn’t know that work is off limits. It doesn’t know that you need to focus on your job. It wants more. It demands it. And so the addict agrees, work suffers, and another consequence is added to your personal life.

Perhaps the most drastic consequence is financial ruin. Most gambling addicts don’t have endless bank accounts. They’ll place the bet whether the funds are there or not. And when they lose, they’re in debt and a whole lot of trouble. This could eventually lead to bankruptcy, which takes years and years to recover.

Where Can I Get Help if I Have a Problem?

The good news in all of this is that if you or someone you love has a problem with sports gambling, there’s more help out there than ever before. Your first step should be to seek professional help. Gambling is a behavioral addiction, meaning it falls under the category of mental health issues. Seeing a mental health professional may be the best choice.

Other than seeking professional guidance (1-800-GAMBLER, or 800-426-2537) there may be some other ways to fill the void. Betting addiction, or really any addiction, takes over our lives because it attaches itself to the reward pathways in our brains. The actions or addictive substances create a happy chemical. It makes us feel good. When we don’t have it, we feel bad, and so we seek to partake in the addiction as much as possible. Although nothing will take the place of professional help, there may be other, healthier things that we can do to produce that same reward.

  • Ice plunge - Extreme cold temperatures can make our brains fire faster than ever. Taking part in this healthy new trend may give you that same rush.
  • Exercise - Exercise is a natural way to produce those happy chemicals in the brain. The more consistent you are with the exercise, the more consistently your brain will be fed those positive chemicals and feelings.
  • Hobbies - For behavioral addicts, finding a replacement behavior can help in the recovery process. Choose a hobby you’ve always wanted to learn and go for it.

Again, nothing will take the place of professional help, but it’s OK to try some of these healthier habits on for size. By taking some responsibility into your own hands, you’ll have much better odds of beating the addiction for good.

Sports betting is fun. It’s easy. It’s exciting. After all, we all like to win. But you also need to constantly monitor the risk versus the reward. Your health and your life are more important. If betting is starting to feel like a job, like a habit, like a craving that must be fed, get help and bet on yourself instead. Because that is a bet worth making.

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