Several in the gambling addiction recovery community are stressing the potential dangers of sportsbook apps and how they may be leading to increases in addiction and relapses now that they are legal.

Several in the gambling addiction recovery community are stressing the potential dangers of sportsbook apps and how they may be leading to increases in addiction and relapses now that they are legal.

Photo by Brendan Losinski

Gamblers stress caution about online sports betting, gambling addiction cases and relapses

By: Brendan Losinski | Metro | Published July 15, 2022


METRO DETROIT — The legalization of apps that allow sports betting on smartphones has been an economic boom in many places and a fun activity for many people.

However, there is a dark side that came with these opportunities, as some people who are addicted to gambling are finding it all the more difficult to fight their destructive habits.

States have been able to legalize sports betting since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on single-game wagering in 2018. To date, nearly two-thirds of states approved some form of legal sports wagering, whether via mobile apps or in-person sportsbooks. Michigan officially legalized sports betting in December 2019.

Mario Sandru, from Chicago, is in recovery for gambling and has been with Gamblers Anonymous for seven years. He said that one of the main impediments to gambling used to be the time of day and location. Now, those impediments are gone.

“When I came into Gamblers Anonymous, there were no apps, but I was betting on websites,” he explained. “It means having the access to be able to gamble in your back pocket. An alcoholic can walk around with a drink on their person, or a drug addict can have their drug in their pocket; now gamblers can have that same temptation. Society views it as entertainment, but it can be life or death for people with this sickness.”

A Macomb County man who wished only to be identified as Derek is a regular attendee at local Gamblers Anonymous meetings. He said the destructive power of gambling addiction is very real and very dangerous.

“This time around, I came to my first meeting on Jan. 5,” Derek said. “I started gambling probably at the age of 18, and I’m 46 now. I was going to the casinos in Windsor at 19. I developed a problem, but I had kicked it for a long time, until the online gambling came around. … I didn’t have to go down to MGM (Grand Casino) anymore. I didn’t have to go to Greektown. I didn’t have to take a trip to Vegas.”

Sandru has had similar experiences.

“It can end in suicide. This addiction is real. I didn’t want to do it, but the addiction was so strong, it was my only option. I would be crying as I was placing bets,” said Sandru. “I was a gambler with sports betting, and it really took over my life. I would be setting up an alarm to wake up every 45 minutes to place my next bets in baseball, Brazilian volleyball, Ping-Pong, whatever I could find. Gambling took over my entire life. I wasn’t a husband, a father, a sibling; I couldn’t function at work, and of course, a financial mess came with it. I was considering suicide. Fortunately, I sought help, but gambling can take people to these places.”

The Gamblers Anonymous head office in Upland, California, does not keep records or statistics about members to maintain their anonymity, but representatives there did say that there has been anecdotal evidence from states across the country showing increases in meeting attendance.

“I have seen an increase in people coming to Gamblers Anonymous meetings,” confirmed Derek. “It hasn’t been an exponential increase or anything like that, but there are more people, especially younger people. … And as many people who are going to meetings or realize they have a problem, there are thousands more who need it.”

Sandru said he has seen more young people coming to meetings, as well.

“I have met a 15-year-old compulsive gambler. No one knew he was betting his parents’ funds on these apps. DraftKings, FanDuel, whatever,” Sandru said. “It seems like it’s particularly affecting younger males. The support groups are getting filled up with young men like that.”

Derek said he can barely listen to sports radio or log onto the internet without encountering an ad for a sportsbook service.

“I used to be a big fan of sports radio. I still like sports, but everything they talk about on shows now is like ‘it’s plus 400’ or ‘minus 200’ or they’re talking about the over/under. It’s been taken over by these gambling apps,” he said. “It’s taken over everything on my computer, too; my email, my Facebook, Instagram. Everything has ads or posts about PokerStars or BetMGM or whatever else.”

Derek hopes people will watch out for common warning signs of gambling becoming a problem in themselves and loved ones. This includes patterns such as needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to get the same thrill; trying to control, cut back or stop gambling without success; or gambling to escape problems or to relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression.

“When anything that you do starts to involve lying or keeping what you’re doing from other people — whether it’s missing work or not being able to pay a bill or whatever else — that is a clear sign that you have started the addiction process,” said Derek. “You need to be honest with yourself. You can catch it before it might become a big issue. Unfortunately, most of the people who go to meetings have gotten way past that point.”

Many of those who have experienced gambling addiction both within themselves and with others hope the public will try to use caution when dealing with sportsbook services. Sandru said he didn’t want to demonize them but that people need to know the risks that uncontrolled gambling can bring.

“I hope people take a deeper look at sports betting and the effect it has on people, not just the revenue it generates,” said Sandru. “You can’t put a price on a life, but the politicians who legalized this just see the money involved. I hope they at least also offer some free help if they are going to keep this legal.”

For anyone seeking aid or more information about themself or a loved one and a possible gambling addiction, the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline can be reached at (800) 270-7117. A National Problem Gambling Helpline can be reached at (800) 522-4700.