It is only very recently that a worldwide blanket ban on betting and gambling for certain participants in English football was introduced in a bid to tackle corruption in the game. “Participants covered by the ban will be prohibited from betting, either directly or indirectly, on any football match or competition that takes place anywhere in the world”. However, what is the real issue behind this recent publicised ban?
Research on athletes and compulsive gambling is extremely scarce, however, athletes may be more vulnerable than the general population to gambling addiction when you look at the soft signs of compulsive gambling. These include high levels of energy, unreasonable expectations of winning, extremely competitive personalities, distorted optimism and often intelligent with high IQs. All of which are often traits of the competing athlete.
The focus on addictions among athletes has gained considerable attention among sports medicine clinicians, with the development of diagnostic indicators, risk and protective factors, and a stage model of addiction among athletes. Gambling may often be seen as a co-morbid factor with other addictions and issues such as depression, however, its prevalence in athletes alone should not be overlooked. Much of the research within this area has been conducted on University athletes as they appear to be a particularly susceptible population to problem gambling. National studies have consistently found that the rates of problem gambling peak in the age group 18 to 24 (Gerstein et al., 1999), around the age that individuals will attend university.
Rockey (1998) reported that the athletes in his study (in comparison to all students) had higher rates of both problem and pathological gambling. Of the athletes surveyed, 12.4% scored in the problem range (compared to 7.3% of all students) and 6.2% scored in the pathological range. Rockey, Beason & Gilbert (2002) supported these findings, noting that university athletes have a higher rate of problem gambling than non-athletes do. In addition, the results of this study suggest that athletes prefer to gamble on games that include a high level of skill. It can be speculated that as athletes participate in games of skill themselves, they prefer gambling activities that are particularly challenging and competitive. By placing bets on these activities, athletes increase the risk, which adds to the level of competition.
Why are Athletes Susceptible to Gambling?
According to Curry & Jiobu (1995), the socialisation of athletes includes a continuous emphasis on competition. This competitive nature has the potential to “spill over” from the playing arena to the athletes’ lives. Gambling in its many forms gives the athlete additional outlets in which they are able to compete. Athletes, like those who are addicted to alcohol or drugs, build up a tolerance to the “adrenaline rush” associated with competition. They need to remain actively competitive even when the activities are friendly or simply for fun. A good example of this phenomenon is Michael Jordan, who got into trouble by wagering on golf in such a manner. In many cases, athletes may be unable to financially support themselves when their athletic careers hit a low or they are faced with retirement, and hence gambling may be a solution to their financial woes.
If a competitive athlete begins to gamble, it can take as little as one win to get hooked, and one loss to want that win back, and this is how the cycle to addiction can begin. Normally, when a loss takes place in gambling, the normal reaction for a person who is not at risk, or is simply participating as an innocent means of entertainment, would be to not continue. However, the competitive athlete may begin employ specific strategies and make adjustments in how they gamble, when they gamble, and what they gamble on, with the mind-set that they can create situations which will result in a win.
Athletes by nature are extremely competitive individuals and don’t like defeat. They are likely to give it their all just as they would in their own sporting environment. If this happens and continues, more money is invested, guilt and shame compliment financial losses, and there is a preoccupation with trying to regain control by continuing the gambling cycle. This is the beginning of an addiction which is sneaky, manipulative, and destructive for many. When the addiction moves out of the losing phase, it no longer becomes about wins, losses, money, or action, but a vicious cycle of escape, desperation, and hopelessness that if not diffused or treated will always end in devastation.
Curry and colleagues (1995) assessed gambling issues in athletes across a number of Universities, and concluded that gamblers and athletes are driven by two common motivations: competition and extrinsic rewards. Competition, which is also a motive for some types of gambling, is a key component of the athlete’s socialisation, as athletes are expected to compete against teammates for positions and against opponents for victory. For the athlete, gambling may be another opportunity to attain status by demonstrating greater skill, knowledge, or courage. Curry and Jiobu (1995) suggested that athletes are more prone than other students to gain satisfaction from extrinsic rewards such as scholarships, fame, awards, money and careers. Extrinsic rewards are also important to gamblers, who are, after all, motivated by the opportunity to win money, and for athletes this offers an alternative source of income.
Problem Gambling Warning Signs among Athletes:
- Preoccupied with gambling – constant thoughts of gambling or getting money to gamble
- Becomes defensive when confronted with gambling habits and lying about the extent of habits
- Borrowing money using financial aid money or other needed money to gambling
- Missing training sessions and other important events because of gambling
- Restless or irritable when not gambling
- “Chasing” losses with more gambling – trying to salvage losses by gambling more
- Increasing bet amounts when gambling in order to achieve the desired excitement
- Unsuccessful attempts to control, cut back or stop gambling
- Arguments with friends, coaches, significant others and family about gambling activity
- Neglecting Responsibilities to engage in gambling activities
Compulsive gambling is an addiction just like alcoholism and drug dependency, with all three recognised by the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic and statistical manual. Nevertheless, compulsive gambling if often treated differently than these other two addictions. Society and professional sports treat people with drugs dependency and alcoholism as being ill, sending them to various treatments and therapies to get them back to work. Whereas compulsive gamblers are often seen as ‘bad’ people and not treated with the help they are in desperate need of. Recent research has suggested that retired athletes may be a segment of the athletic population which are the most susceptible to pathological gambling. When a former athlete no longer has the sporting event to quench his or her competitive thirsts, they may turn to gambling in general and possibly specifically to sports gambling to satisfy theses need.
Anyone who decides to gamble or wager money is at risk of developing problems, but those with natural competitiveness such as athletes need to pay closer attention because there is an added risk. Ackerman and Piper (1996) warned universities to expect an increase in gambling-related problems for athletes. Research to identify the extent of university involvement in educating and treating problem and pathological gambling in athletes is needed.
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About Emma Vickers
PhD Sport Psychology student (Athlete Career Transitions). England table tennis player.