The Dark Side of March Madness No One Talks About

Men watching basketball game at home

Gambling expert says betting on the NCAA basketball tournament leads some, particularly college students, down the road to addiction.

Still bragging about your NCAA bracket picks?  When you and millions of others this month descended into the yearly spring rite of college basketball known as March Madness, wherein you bet $5 or $10 in a tournament pool – you hardly thought it gambling. And this year’s whopping $1-billion long-shot prize from Warren Buffet upped the ante.

But there’s a reason that National Problem Gambling Week has become National Problem Gambling Month. Among the one in 10 Americans the NCAA estimates bets on March Madness, some unknowingly are introduced to an engulfing disorder.

“I’m not saying it’s not OK to go out to Las Vegas and place a bet on a team,” said Tim Otteman, an assistant professor at Central Michigan University and an internationally known expert on sports-related gambling. “But nobody becomes addicted to gambling before they make their first bet, and nobody becomes an alcoholic before their first drink, and nobody becomes a drug addict before they smoke their first [marijuana] joint.”

Otteman’s expertise on problem gambling comes partly from first-hand experience. He grew up in the world of sports gambling and is a reformed gambler himself. Otteman’s brother was a campus bookie and his father ran a parlay card operation out of a neighborhood bar.

Just how big is the addiction potential from our traditional hoops lark? The NCAA basketball tournament vies with the Super Bowl as the world’s largest gambling event, according to the American Gaming Association. It reports that more money is spent during the first four days of March Madness than on the Super Bowl. This forces gambling addicts to sustain resistance to the craving to bet, while week after week, office coworkers and friends excitedly talk strategy, player injuries and even offshore betting “experts” before and after every game.

Even President Barack Obama takes the time to fill out a bracket for the NCAA tournament, though he hasn’t disclosed whether he’s put any money behind it. There are at least three federal statutes against the type of pay-to-enter NCAA tournament pools that are done online.

The month of March has been chosen [for National Problem Gambling Month] because it coincides with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament, noted the National Council on Problem Gambling. Between 8 million and 12 million people meet the criteria for gambling problems, the council states, yet only a fraction seek help.

Indeed, the FBI estimates that $2.5 billion is spent yearly in the state of Nevada on legal sports gambling. The federal law enforcement agency, which has investigated organized crime and its interests in gaming, has estimated that $80 billion to $380 billion is spent on illegal sports gambling each year.

Is March Madness the Road to Addiction?

The odds of getting every game right are very long. There are 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 bracket scenarios.

The scope of the problem is difficult to pinpoint, Otteman and public health agencies say, because the pastime is illegal yet socially acceptable, and frequently goes undetected by even close friends and family. But it’s considered compelling enough for Forbes and the Wall Street Journal to probe its impact on worker productivity. DISH “has decided to encourage its employees to take ‘Bracket Breaks’ during normal working hours,” Forbes magazine reported. The DISH Anywhere app allows them to view the tournament via their mobile devices at work.

Otteman says his research found that among the country’s top 50 newspapers, 48 run March Madness point spreads. And nearly every state has a “problem gambling” public health agency with websites and resources for low-cost or free help. Several, like California, hold yearly problem gambling screening tests, and they are usually in March.

This week marks the start of the tournament, with a field of 68 college teams, and the brackets – your bet on which teams will win or lose each match through the finals – due Thursday morning. A flood of new participants is expected because of the March Madness $1 billion prize for anyone who correctly guesses all 64 March Madness games. Nobody’s ever done it, and the odds, according to USA Today, are one in – wait for it – 9 quintillion.

That won’t stop the feverish bracketing watch, however. Given that Otteman believes baseball has been replaced by sports gambling as America’s favorite pastime, we can bet on daily news reports on all platforms, texting and tweeting about #MarchMadness. For addicts who can’t stop betting, the effort has to be sustained for March Madness avoidance. Some tips to steer clear of relapsing, from the New York Council on Problem Gambling:

  1. Remove yourself from situations that may trigger an urge to gamble, such as being in sports bars when games are on, watching big games with large groups of friends or participating in conversations about brackets with coworkers.
  2. Politely excuse yourself from participating in any gambling pools at work or among groups of friends. If you feel comfortable, explain why you’d rather not participate, and see if there is anything these groups can do to distance the opportunity to gamble from you. Your boss may decide gambling is not the best idea for the workplace if it puts employees at risk.
  3. Keep with you emergency numbers, such as the NYS HOPEline (1-877-8-HOPENY), your counselor or a friend who understands your situation, in case of overwhelming cravings to bet. The support of others can help keep your recovery on track when you have the urge gamble.
  4.  Find other ways to enjoy March Madness. If you enjoy watching the games, find a friend or group of friends who are happy to enjoy the games with no gambling involved.

Addiction is widely recognized as a chronic disease of “brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations,” according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Gambling was only classified as an addiction in spring 2013, when the DSM 5 recognized that research shows similarities in brain reward pathways between pathological gambling and substance abuse.

Three Questions to Ask Yourself

1. During the past 12 months, have you become restless, anxious, irritable or even angry when trying to stop or cut down on gambling?

2. During the past 12 months, have you tried to keep your family and friends from knowing how much you gamble?

3. During the past 12 months did you have such financial trouble as a result of your gambling that you had to get help with living expenses from family, friends or welfare?

Answering yes to any of these questions may indicate addictive gambling behavior.

“Sports betting via competing NCAA tournament brackets has long been a socially accepted form of gambling,” said Dr. Jack Kuo, who specializes in gaming addiction and psychiatry for Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, Los Angeles and Austin owned by Elements Behavioral Health. “The usual heavy online searching for March Madness is being further augmented this year by the billion-dollar payoff promotion…. For some people, March Madness can serve as a gateway to other forms of sports gambling, either online or via bookies.”

Numerous studies have shown college-age gamblers are two to four times more likely to become pathological gamblers than the adult population, according to Otteman. “And the scary part of that is, the younger a person gets involved, the longer they are gambling.”

In his 2008 dissertation, “Gambling With Their Lives: College Students and Sports Gambling,” Otteman was interested in confirming his own observations as a student gambler. Friends who started gambling on March Madness were in debt and digging an ever-deeper hole. He conducted confidential research with college students who were actively participating in illegal sports gambling at the Michigan university campus, visiting sports and other athletic-oriented classes and programs, inviting students who were gambling on sports to participate in his research.

He whittled the list of candidates down to 14 students whom he had learned detailed personal information about. Otteman wanted to know how they were introduced to sports gambling (unanimously, it was by a male role model in their homes). His other questions:  What was their first bet (unanimously, it was the Super Bowl or March Madness pool) and did they win or lose, and how much money? How had their gambling progressed?

“I’m not a psychiatrist; I’m not a counselor or addiction specialist,” said Otteman, who teaches in the parks, recreation and events administration school. “But there were some students who were suffering signs of addiction, like choosing to gamble rather than do what they were supposed to do, like go to work or classes. There were some just getting involved, some involved for years, some [spending] just $25 on one game, and some who were gambling any money they could get their hands on…. It was clear that most people can spend $20 in the March Madness brackets and bet based on the color of a team’s uniform and do it to have something to root for. But we owe it to people – especially kids – to warn them that it could lead you down the wrong path.”

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