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    Are You Ready for Some Football? – Sports Betting the next opioid crisis?

    By Bruce Jones, LSW, LCDC III, NCGC II; Administrative Coordinator – Maryhaven’s Gambling Intervention Program

    It’s a question that Hank Williams, Jr. asked in the intro music to Monday Night Football back in the 1990s. And, we must have been ready. Soon, the marquee games (including college games) expanded to other nights of the week. By the 2010s, you could even watch games on the go thanks to streaming on your smartphone.

    Now, in the 2020s, we face the next evolution in indulging in one of our favorite American pastimes. It’s called Sports Betting and it’s become even more intriguing and intricate with point spreads, over/unders, player props, and “live” in-play micro-wagers. The slope here is quite slippery, my friends.

    Earlier this year, The Hill newspaper cited multiple experts who labeled gambling addiction and its fallout as the country’s next opioid crisis, including my colleague Timothy Fong from UCLA.

    The article’s comparison started with the point that most Americans ignored the opioid crisis, and the staggering increase in overdose deaths that came with it, until reporters took a hard look at decades of data – long after it was too late to intervene in many cases.

    With sports betting, “you have the exact same players you had with opioids,” Fong said. “You have government. You have industry. You have civilians, a lot of whom will benefit from this. And then you have a population who will develop an addiction, let’s say 1 to 1.5% of the population.”

    Fong went on to note, as I often do, that the hidden nature of gambling addiction is what makes it so scary. You can’t see it, smell it, or taste it. So often a gambler has racked up significant debt before a loved one recognizes the issue.

    Sadly, the article predicts that, again like the opioid crisis, sports betting addiction will take a toll, leading to rising rates of bankruptcy, domestic violence, depression, anxiety, and suicide.

    Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, also points out that unlike alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, sports gambling has no federal regulation presence as this point (not to mention no federal dollars for treatment or research, like we see with the others). It’s essentially the Wild West in many states, with betting operators lobbying overtime to quickly add legal wagering to the books.

    It’s no wonder we got out ahead of our skis, considering that residents in more than three-quarters of states could legally gamble on sports less than five years after the Supreme Court ruling which allowed states to regulate gambling. It’s why we don’t bat an eye at stories like this from The Washington Post on underage gambling and the NCAA, or the surge of voicemails and emails that are waiting for me and fellow counselors every morning.

    I’m thankful that Ohio has been one of the leaders in enforcement when operators overstep, and that all the focus on gambling has made admitting a problem seem to be less of a sign of weakness for many. Ultimately, however, we face a whole new lineup: our country’s most popular sport and one particularly loved in Central Ohio is about to kickoff – and for the first time we can legally bet on it. What’s next is up for grabs.

    The National Council on Problem Gambling conservatively estimated that the risk for gambling addiction rose 30% in the first three years after the aforementioned Supreme Court decision, and was even higher, in particular, for men ages 18 to 24 (roughly 50%). A recent spread in Men’s Health magazine painted an even bleaker picture and serves as a cautionary tale for Ohio’s entry into legal sports betting. Younger gamblers will be an even more vulnerable target with giants like ESPN now in the game.

    What’s the fallout? Well, notably the Men’s Health piece reports that 58% of men say sports betting has affected their mental health. The reality is that many likely had a pre-existing issue exacerbated by gambling, but the link between the two is clear. It’s why Maryhaven, with 70 years of treating issues like depression and anxiety, is uniquely qualified to help problem gamblers in a way that few others are able.

    I often tell people that “Maryhaven can do it all.” The problem is that one single entity cannot do it all if the demand skyrockets. My hope is that we are really ready for some football.