We Asked an Addiction Expert About How Legalized Sports Gambling Will Affect Addicts

What the landmark Supreme Court ruling could mean for those coping with addiction.

On May 14th, the United States Supreme Court voted 6–3 in favour of eliminating the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), kick-starting what will likely be a domino effect of states individually legalizing sports betting under the protection of the 10th amendment.

In reality, this is a formality, merely legitimizing an underground practice that has bolstered the US economy, legal and otherwise, for over a century. In recent years, betters have gone away from the classic bookie-better relationship we’ve seen depicted in countless crime dramas in favour of betting, you guessed it, over the internet. Through a combination of offshore sports books and cryptocurrency, you can now put your money where your mouth is with relative ease. Many states, namely New Jersey, have been anticipating this decision for the better part of a decade now, and sports betting finding a new home in the digital age certainly played no small part in courts and legislatures feeling the push for its legalization.

With one tap, gamblers have countless odds at their disposal. Here is the front page of the Bovada.lv app, one of the most popular digital sports books.

Gamblers and non-gamblers alike are rejoicing in what certainly seems like a victory for freedom and personal rights, and many states are already rubbing their hands mischievously as they plot how they can best extort this new opening for every last dollar.

There is, however, one segment of the population that isn’t in line to benefit from the Court’s decision; gambling addicts.

Jim Goins is the clinical director of Desert Hope Treatment Center in Las Vegas, and a recovering gambling addict himself. I asked him how he expects the legalization of sports betting to affect gambling addicts, and what we can do in the wake of this decision to stand by those suffering from gambling addiction.

Goins noted that, above all else, it will come down to the way each state chooses to implement (and regulate) legal sports betting that will ultimately determine how it will affect those with gambling addictions. Where people will be allowed to place bets, what organizations are controlling them, and how they are publicly promoted will all play a pivotal role in easing gambling addicts into a new and uncomfortable reality.

“We’ve got to do this right, or things will get out of hand very quickly.”

With the state of New Jersey reportedly hoping to have all of the parts in place to offer legal wagering on the upcoming NBA Finals, it appears that those who’ve had problems with gambling could be left without much time to prepare, either.

An inevitable outcome of this new development is the reality that those dealing with gambling problems will be faced with an entirely new onslaught of triggers as sports betting carves out its long-awaited niche in open society. Goins hearkened back to his first memories of finding banks of video poker machines installed in everywhere from the airport to the grocery store after first going to Las Vegas. He worries that if states were to implement legal sports gambling in a way at all reminiscent of what Las Vegas has done with gambling as a whole, compulsive gamblers may find themselves struggling to find healthy responses to these newfound public triggers.

A bank of slot machines near a gate at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas

As states individually roll out their unique plans for the future of gambling, Goins says that he hopes we can use this cultural moment as a platform to better educate the public on what it means to responsibly gamble, and the potential dangers when gambling habits get out of hand.

“Very few people who have gambling issues seek treatment, and even when they do, those treatment options are few,” he said. Even more grim is that, unlike treatment for addiction to drugs or alcohol, treatment for gambling addiction is rarely subject for reimbursement by insurance companies.

It is Goins’ expectation that operations now looking into offering sports betting will be required to pay into treatment programs for those with gambling addictions. He cited legislation passed in Maryland in conjunction with their legalization of casino gambling, which generates between four and five million dollars annually to go towards programs for gambling addicts. Massachusetts takes a flat 2% of casino revenues and allocates them similarly.

In order for sports betting to be legalized properly, and responsibly, this will need to be the norm. This added funding stream will hopefully increase both the quality and quantity of available care for those suffering from a gambling addiction, as well as give outreach organizations a budget for gambling education initiatives.

The facade of MGM National Harbor, the latest of 6 casinos to open in Maryland since 2010.

Goins estimates that around four to six percent of people who engage with gambling will go on to develop a problem. If you find yourself, or someone close to you needing to gamble increasing amounts to feel the desired excitement from gambling, is particularly preoccupied with gambling and thinking about gambling,or has jeopardized a serious relationship because of their gambling habits, please consider seeking treatment, and know that there are options out there for support (criterion courtesy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition).

For some, gambling can be a way of injecting added excitement into their normal sports-watching routine. Even small bets can go a long way in influencing your interest level in the game at hand, particularly if it’s one where you otherwise wouldn’t have a stake in the outcome. But chasing that excitement can easily get to be too much, and it is key for old gamblers and new ones alike to proceed with ample caution, and never wager more than you can afford to lose.

Anyone with concerns about their gambling habits should reach out to the National Council on Problem Gambling, who operates the National Problem Gambling Helpline Network at (1–800–522–4700).