Sports Betting Is Destroying Young Men

In May of 2023, Ivan Toney, an English soccer player who plays for Brentford Football Club in the English Premier League, was banned from soccer for eight months and fined $62,500 after being found guilty of 232 breaches of the Football Association’s betting rules. It’s easy to write off this story as an individual failure on Ivan Toney’s part. And while he is undoubtedly at fault and has rightfully been punished, the situation highlights a more significant problem with sports betting as a whole and how it’s destroying our young men.

In 2012, American rapper, 50 Cent, bet $500k that The New York Giants would win the National Football Conference title. They did, and he won over $1 million. Not only did that bet elevate him in the eyes of the gambling elite, but it created a dream for young men everywhere. The dream of the winning bet. Today, that dream has been democratized through a seemingly endless stream of sports betting apps. These companies sell you on the idea that, just like 50 Cent, you, too, can become a millionaire by placing the right bet on the game you love.

Unfortunately, this easy access to gambling has opened the floodgates to a new public health and addiction crisis around the globe. And with major industries behind it, it’s hard to imagine this epidemic ending anytime soon. One of those industries is the American National Football League, the NFL. In 2012, the same year that 50 Cent won his big bet, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that gambling was “a threat to the league.”

Just over a decade since he made that statement, the 2023 Super Bowl was riddled with ads from major sportsbook companies like FanDuel and DraftKings. Did Goodell genuinely have a change of heart about betting? Or were there just too many under-the-desk handshakes for him to keep his stance? We may never know for sure.

What’s clear for all to see, though, is that all the major sports leagues and the networks that license them now work together with casinos and gambling apps through multimillion-dollar partnerships. Announcers identify moments to place a bet as they’re calling the game. And pregame TV segments are devoted to analyzing betting odds. And it’s not just in the United States.

The second tier of the English Football League pyramid is sponsored by a betting company. The competition is literally called the “Sky Bet Championship.” Look at this photograph of Ivan Toney, the footballer I mentioned earlier. See anything striking? Check out the logo on his jersey. It’s for a betting company called Hollywood Bets. So the club he plays for is sponsored by a betting company. Isn’t that just the biggest irony?

And it’s not just Brentford. Around 40% of shirt sponsors for clubs in the 22/23 Premier League season were gambling companies. And as if sporting competitions and teams endorsing gambling aren’t problematic enough, colleges, filled with students who are too young to gamble, are also jumping into bed with sportsbook apps. Representatives from these online gambling companies go to campuses to discuss their products and offer promotions. 

It mimics the transition that happened years ago when universities in the United States accepted beer and liquor partners at sporting events.

These companies hide behind legality as a defense against criticism. The argument is that legal sports betting apps are always safer than gambling on the black market with untrustworthy bookies. So if college kids are going to gamble anyway, isn’t it better they do so legally and safely? But the truth is only a tiny fraction of students at these schools are even old enough to legally drink or gamble in the first place.

While the argument makes some sense. The problem isn’t really the legality of gambling; it’s the aggressive marketing of the betting companies and their target audience. 

1 in 5 American adults say they’ve bet money on sports in the last 12 months. In 2022, revenue from sports betting was around $75 billion, a 75% increase from 2021. And over 100 million legal Super Bowl 2023 transactions were recorded, a 25% increase from the previous year. 

The group most affected by this rapid rise in sports betting? Young men. It’s a known scientific fact that young people are more predisposed to addiction. Telling avid young sports fans that they can make money through betting is extremely dangerous and unethical when you know that they have a higher chance of getting addicted than they do of winning anything. 

Gambling addicts have higher rates of depression and suicidal behavior than the rest of the population. As many as 19% of gambling addicts attempt suicide, the highest rate of any addiction. 

And another problem with sports gambling is that it’s often an unseen addiction. When we think of gambling, we often picture rolling dice or shuffling cards. Things that we perceive as having a random outcome. Games of chance. 

But sports betting is different. Bettors are convinced that their choices are informed. After all, they’ve been following the sport since they were a kid. So they might consider themselves experts, giving themselves the illusion of control over the bets they place, compared to traditional gambling. 

Some of these young men even turn to social media influencers for betting advice, not knowing that many of these self-proclaimed betting experts are scam artists looking to cash in on the naiveté of their followers. 

Sadly, the constant flow of sports betting information on platforms like Twitter and YouTube, together with the aggressive marketing of these betting companies, is driving people to bet higher and more frequently.  People think they’re making smart moves based on data, when in reality, they’re still more likely to lose than they are to win. 

New Jersey was one of the first states in the U.S. to legalize gambling. When they did, they included funding for gathering data on every bet placed, and for conducting regular studies on the industry as a whole. 

Records show that approximately 70% of all sports bets placed lose. That’s an incredibly high number for an industry that promises data-driven odds. What makes sports betting addiction even more invisible is the fact that, unlike alcohol or drugs, the warning signs might not be obvious. The physical toll isn’t as noticeable, and it’s not until things get very, very bad that family and friends might start to piece together what’s going on.

It often starts with joining a harmless fantasy sports league. Or placing a small bet on a single outcome. But once someone realizes they have access to unlimited betting in the palm of their hands, things can quickly get out of control. 

Because gamblers are able to gamble anywhere at any time through their smartphones, they could be sitting next to their spouse, roommate, or kids who have no idea their loved one is gambling away their life savings. Some of these new apps even connect directly to your bank account, making it easy to lose track of how much you’re betting and losing. 

And since it’s not a conventional addiction, few people seek help compared with other mental health disorders or physical addictions. When they do, there’s also a high discontinuation of treatment. 39% of people who seek treatment will drop out before completing recovery, compared to a 20% dropout rate for other mental health issues. Like any addiction, there are treatment options, but recovering from a gambling addiction is particularly difficult because the ‘drug of choice’ is with you at all times — on your phone. Therapists treating the addiction ask patients to stop using smartphones or even stop watching sports. 

And the sportsbook companies themselves don’t make it easier for those addicted to quit. ‘Cool-off functions’ on betting apps that block users from gambling for a few hours or days aren’t easily accessible. Same with ‘self-exclusion’ options that users can use to block themselves from the app for long periods of time. 

Unsurprisingly, the American Gaming Association, which lobbies to bolster and promote the gambling industry, insists that these self-imposed limits DO exist, even though they are difficult to find. The Association is also quick to note that it is the largest funder of recovery services as part of its commitment to promote responsible gambling. And it’s not lying. But isn’t that just taking two steps back and one step forward? That’s still one step back. 

The focus in the United States on gambling disorders has been minimal. Resources for addicts have been stretched thin during this current wave of betting. Calls to gambling hotlines in 2021 rose 43% over 2020, hotline texts increased 59%, and chats increased 84%. Yet at the exact same time, we are seeing a massive increase in advertising by online sportsbook companies. In 2022, in the United States alone, ad spending on sports betting was close to $1.8 billion. 

These ads promote misleading ‘risk-free bets,’ and other perks that make an incredibly risky behavior seem not so risky. And it doesn’t help that the ads are produced to glamorize gambling. 

They’re wholesome and aspirational, showing people the lifestyle they could have with all the money they’ll win gambling. And they offer quick, confusing disclaimers that, like the side effects of a prescription drug, are difficult to see or hear. And of course, these ads have led to record-breaking revenue for gambling companies. 

The terrifying part of this entire thing is that we’re fully aware of the risks associated with sports betting. Just look at New Jersey, the first state to legalize gambling after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018 left the decision of legalization to the states. 

Today, New Jersey has three times the national average of gambling addicts. Around 13% of the state’s population suffers from a gambling problem. 

With this grim reality, why aren’t we all clamoring for a ban or at least moderation of sports betting?

To be fair, many of the remaining states where gambling is still illegal are in no rush to legalize it. And, like with any trend, as the population adapts to the availability of legal sports gambling, its popularity may decrease. 

But we don’t need to rely on potential outcomes to begin making a dent in solving the problem for the millions of Americans susceptible to gambling addiction. 

The apps should set time and money limits, especially for their younger users. They should also fund public service announcements on television and social media about gambling addictions. 

In Australia, a country whose population has struggled with sports betting, live sports gambling isn’t available online, bets must be placed by phone or at a designated venues which allows staff to intervene if they see signs of addiction. 

In the UK, the government has banned top athletes and celebrities from appearing in ads that endorse or promote gambling. And all 20 clubs in the English Premier League have agreed that they will no longer place gambling sponsorships on their match day shirts starting the beginning of the 2026-27 season. 

The United States needs to learn from and implement some of these measures. Because currently, federal oversight of legal online gambling is virtually nonexistent. There are no federal funds designated for the treatment or research of gambling addiction, unlike tobacco, drugs, and alcohol, which all have federal support toward recovery efforts. And beyond the federal government, there’s an unclear patchwork of state legislation and consumer protections. 

The American Gaming Association has created a responsible marketing code to set industrywide advertising standards. But that’s like asking cigarette companies in the 1950s to self-regulate the Marlboro Man. 

We need to see the same sanctions that were implemented on tobacco applied to the sports betting industry. Once studies showed that the tobacco industry wanted people hooked on a deadly product, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration immediately limited advertising. To this day, it’s impossible to buy cigarettes without being confronted with a dramatic label warning about their health implications. 

So why do we treat those who are susceptible to a gambling addiction any differently? The science behind gambling addiction doesn’t differ much from being addicted to tobacco or even cocaine. 

Just as cigarettes can harm your physical health, sports betting has the potential to ruin families and lead to lifelong mental health struggles. As the government lags behind, gambling companies, sports leagues, and anyone else who can profit off unwitting bettors rake in cash - while our young men are being destroyed by the addiction. 

We’re still in the early days of rampant sports betting, and it couldn’t have come at a more dangerous time because some of the people placing bets on sports aren’t doing it for the love of the game. They’re doing it for survival. 

With a depressed stock market, some people think sports betting is a better way to “invest” their money than buying stocks. Similarly, those who believed that crypto was a great idea a year ago might be susceptible to another promise of a quick payout.

Times are volatile, the financial markets are uncertain, and people are desperate. But the sad reality is that people who think they can find some sort of upside in sports betting will likely end up disappointed — or worse.