Why Do Elite Athletes Gamble When They Know the Consequences?

Back in April, the NFL handed down major suspensions to five players for violating the league’s gambling policy. Exactly one month later (May 21) ESPN announced that the NFL is investigating a second wave of potential violations. Meanwhile, news from the NCAA indicates that sports betting allegations involving college football players are on the rise. Athletes at Iowa and Iowa State are under investigation for possible online sports gambling while an Alabama baseball coach was fired for placing a wager on an Alabama-LSU game. All of this has happened just five months into 2023, and doesn’t account for everything that has occurred since sports betting became legal in the U.S. in 2018.

Despite the number of highly-publicized investigations, indefinite suspensions, and terminations, reported violations continue to roll in. If you read through the comment sections and forums of respective news reports you will find a consistent theme of blame being pointed at the athletes for not having the “willpower” to abstain from gambling when they know it’s wrong. The world “spoiled” and “entitled” is tossed around like pigskin. What you don’t find in these trolling assessments, is empathy. In reality, it should be the first thing that comes to mind. You see, it’s the fact that elite athletes gamble when they know it’s a violation (that could ruin their careers) that is most telling. Allow us to explain.

Why Elite Athletes May Continue to Violate Gambling Policies Despite High Risk of Consequence

Problem Gamblers Gamble Despite Consequences

It’s easy for society to understand why someone continues to abuse substances with no regard for harmful consequences. They know that such an individual has a chemical dependency which is labelled an addiction. Substances such as alcohol, methamphetamine, and opiates (etc.) are “tangible” and easy for the public to understand in the context of addiction. But let’s take a look at one definition of the word addiction;  a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.

While problem gambling has not been given the “addiction” classification, the APA recognizes it as a behavioral health disorder with characteristics that are similar to traditional addictions:

“Gambling disorder involves repeated, problem gambling behavior. The behavior leads to problems for the individual, families, and society. Adults and adolescents with gambling disorder have trouble controlling their gambling. They will continue even when it causes significant problems.

American Psychiatric Association (APA)

Greater mainstream transparency about gambling disorder could certainly help generate a more empathetic response from the public and sanctioning bodies alike.

Comorbidity of Mental and Behavioral Health Conditions

The American College of Sports Medicine reports that around 35% of elite athletes suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Anxiety and depression are comorbid (simultaneously present) with problem gambling. Other mental health conditions that co-occur with problem gambling include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and alcohol use disorder. If an elite athlete struggles with any of these, they generally have a higher risk of gambling disorder. Once again we ask that the public and governing bodies take a more compassionate approach when making determinations about athletes who get caught up in sports betting scandals.

Other Risk Factors May Contribute to Athlete Violations

In addition to the comorbid mental health conditions above, there are other risk factors that are associated with an elevated risk of problem gambling in elite athletes. These include the following:

  • Genetics – Problem gambling tends to run in families at a higher rate than for many other behavioral and psychiatric disorders.
  • Age – Young adults have a harder time quitting gambling.
  • Personality – Competitive risk-takers are more disposed to developing gambling disorder.
  • Social – Peer (i.e. teammate) influence is a critical social factor.
  • Surroundings – Exposure to gambling triggers (i.e. in-stadium sports betting advertising, etc.) makes it hard to quit.

View more on the risk factors that can make it hard for athletes to stop gambling.

What’s Being Done to Help Athletes?

With everything above we have painted a picture that a more measured approach is required for certain (certainly not all) violations regarding sports betting protocols. We suggest that punitive actions be complemented with supportive ones too. In addition to the provision of problem gambling support services, focus must also be placed on greater research, prevention, and protection for vulnerable athletes.

A model of this call to action is already underway. For instance, Kindbridge Behavioral Health has partnered with the NFLPA’s  Professional Athletes Foundation (PAF) for a first-of-its-kind mental health program that focuses on problem gambling. In addition, Kindbridge Research Institute is working with the State of Colorado and Sportradar to develop the Colorado Athlete Wellbeing Program.This program will help student athletes better manage the mental health issues they’re already experiencing, including problem gambling. There are more exciting developments underway as we speak. We encourage you to stay tuned by bookmarking this section for updates.

If you work with athletes at an amateur, collegiate, or professional level and want to learn more about how your institution or organization can better support their mental and behavioral health, reach out to Kindbridge today.

Concerned Athletic Organizations and Institutions

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