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The hidden toll of sports gambling

An estimated $20 billion will be wagered on Super Bowl Sunday, and the advertisements make it seem like everyone will win. How did we get here?

FanDuel, DraftKings, and other online gambling apps are displayed on a phone.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Super Bowl Sunday means many things this year: parties, commercials, bean dips, guacamole bowls, loving Taylor Swift, hating Taylor Swift, discussing Taylor Swift over bean dips and guacamole, several hours of football — there will be some football — and finally a new and significant record that almost no one is discussing. By the end of the day, according to the American Gaming Association, a record 68 million Americans will wager a stunning $23 billion on the Super Bowl — and most of them will be doing it legally.

How did we get here?

Six years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited sports gambling and effectively limited the practice to one place: Nevada. Almost overnight after the ruling, about a dozen states opened some sort of legal sportsbook — and more were soon to come. Lawmakers, desperate to pad their state budgets, wanted to cash in by taxing the long-verboten business, and shiny new companies sprung up to give people what they wanted: a chance to place some action and make the game more interesting.

Today, some form of sports gambling is legal in most states and, in many, including Massachusetts, people can place their bets from the comfort of their couches — on their phones — using apps provided by FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, and others. In this new world, according to the ubiquitous advertisements, gambling is exciting and glamorous. People aren’t sitting alone in a sea of slot machines in the middle of the day. They’re sitting alone in the blue glow of their phone screens — and they’re hitting it big. The ads make it seem like that anyway. Everyone wins.


I’ll be honest: I sometimes place bets on my phone, too — $20 here, $10 there, and it can make the game more interesting. But it can also make it more agonizing. If I lose — and I often lose — I’ll go to bed angry or wake up the next morning in a stew of regret. The $20 bet is like the second or third glass of wine — it’s usually a mistake.


We don’t see this side in the gambling advertisements. But there are people out there who see it every day — and it can be dark. Gambling helplines across the country are overwhelmed with phone calls from people who’ve lost too much over the weekend, from spouses keeping secrets, from people contemplating suicide, from misguided callers who think the helpline can help them recoup their losses, from college kids who’ve frittered away thousands of dollars placing bets on their phones, and from their parents worried about their children losing money. “We’ve had an uptick in calls from parents,” Felicia Grondin, the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, told me. “They’re just looking for someone to talk to.”

Grondin expects similar conversations on Monday, the day after the Super Bowl. According to data compiled by the National Council on Problem Gambling, calls to gambling helplines typically peak between noon and 4 p.m. on Mondays, and staffers say they’re always inundated after big games. People need help, and regulators are worried that those in need might soon include underage gamblers. Last fall, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission aired concerns that people under the age of 21 might be placing bets, and Lia Nower, a leading gambling expert, said she believes it’s already happening.


Nower, the director of the Rutgers University Center for Gambling Studies, told me that the ads on television are designed to capture the attention of both adults and children — the first generation of kids to grow up with widespread legalized gambling. “Studies show that kids see these advertisements on TV,” Nower said. “They can remember the names of the companies. It makes them want to try it.” And when younger gamblers do try it, Nower said, they are more likely to make impulsive choices. They’re not just placing bets before the game but during it.

Old-school gamblers call the practice “chasing.” You start to lose, so you place a different bet to hedge your losses. Then, you start to lose that bet, so you place yet another wager to climb back in. And suddenly, if you’re unlucky, you’re down — maybe a lot of money. “In an instant,” Nower said.

It’s something that happened many years ago to one of our most notorious gamblers: baseball legend Pete Rose. At his low point in the 1980s, according to my reporting, Rose lost as much as $30,000 a week betting on sports, and he couldn’t even place bets on his cellphone. He was chasing his losses, calling bookies on a landline.

Now that it’s so much easier to gamble, lawmakers need to have serious conversations about what comes next. Addiction counselors argue that more money needs to be set aside to get problem gamblers the help they need. Health care providers must start screening for gambling addiction, the way they screen for problems at home with drugs, intrusive thoughts, alcohol, and guns, and experts like Nower believe regulators need to reexamine how gambling is advertised, packaged, and sold.


“It’s like how cigarettes were marketed in the era of the Marlboro Man,” Nower said. “That’s where we are with gambling right now.”

It’s cool. It’s all the rage. Sixty-eight million people will do it this Sunday, and no one wants to talk about how it will make us feel in the morning.

Keith O’Brien is a journalist and author of the forthcoming “Charlie Hustle: The Rise and Fall of Pete Rose, and the Last Glory Days of Baseball.”