Gambling: NFLs destructive partner
By GARY SHELTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001
His name is John, and he's a compulsive gambler.
The words come out of him, hoarse and dry, as if they, too, had been fractured by the life that had led him here. No longer are they the hardest words you could imagine.
John sits in a big room in a small church in St. Petersburg (Grace Lutheran), a bottle of supermarket-brand orange soda on the table in front of him. He does not make eye contact as he speaks. He swallows often. Around him, 16 other men and three women nod and greet him in voices laced with familiar pain.
"Hello, John," they say.
It isn't really far from the Super Bowl. A few miles over the bridge, and a lot of heartache. They meet here once a week, the members of Gamblers Anonymous, and they examine each others' wounds. They share their pain, and they try to soothe it, and they talk of the way the freight train used to steam through them like blood lust. Then they talk about today, and how it will pass without them wagering.
Time was, John used to love the Super Bowl. The first time he visited a casino, he won big on Super Bowl XXIII.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about gambling," John says quietly. "I like the Giants. I think "Wouldn't it be nice to have a thousand dollars on the Giants?' But I know what would happen next. I want to have a wife, a career, a home, friends, family. Gambling takes all of that away."
John is 35. By his estimate, he has lost $400,000 gambling. Only half of it was his. The rest he stole or conned. He was fired by his brother for embezzlement. He spent a year in prison in Virginia for using a company credit card to gamble, and 20 minutes after he was out, he was back in action. He spent his honeymoon depressed over a parlay that narrowly escaped him.
"Pittsburgh blocked a Minnesota field goal in overtime," he said.
Three years ago, John took a cruise from Miami so he could bet the Super Bowl. He remembered sitting at the bar, pulling for the Broncos to cover, delighting as they won outright.
"Nothing could feel better than that," he said. "The juices were running through me. I felt fantastic, like life had all the meaning at that moment. I couldn't feel pain, nothing. It was like I was managing the game. It was like I was playing the game."
That night, John won. To a compulsive gambler, it doesn't matter. Eventually, you're going to wreck, and you're going to chase the lost money, and you're to hurt people to do it, and you aren't going to care.
"I remember watching this program about Art Schlichter," John said. "I remember thinking "That guy is me.' He was just like me. And I knew that day that I was going to prison, too. And there wasn't a thing I could to do stop it."
* * *
You wanna bet?
It never has been easier, and it never has been crazier.
If you are a gambler, the Super Bowl was made for you. Wild bets, crazy bets, weird bets. You can bet on the first pass, and on the first touchdown, and on the first first down, and the last points of the game. You can bet on the coin flip, and the MVP, and the first play. You can bet on the longest field goal, and the shortest. You can bet whether there will be a safety or a two-point conversion. You can bet on the total yardage by Priest Holmes and Ron Dayne, the backup running backs. You can bet on whether the Ravens will have as many touchdowns as Manchester United has goals on Sunday.
You also can bet Trent Dilfer. Oh, can you bet Dilfer. You can bet whether he will have a run longer than 5 yards, or a pass longer than 32, or whether he'll have more than 11 completions. You can bet whether Dilfer's incompletions will be more than the number of free throws missed by Shaquille O'Neal, and if his yardage will be more than the point totals of the Nets and 76ers, and whether he'll have more touchdown passes than Chicago's Tony Amonte will have points.
You can bet on your computer. You can board a ship and cruise offshore and bet. Odds are, you can find an illegal bookmaker on your block. If you are like most people, you can find a pool in your office, or at your golf club, or with the guy sitting next to you at the diner where you have breakfast.
"Super Bowl Sunday for compulsive gamblers is like New Year's Eve is for alcoholics," said Arnie Wexler, who counsels addicts. "It's a crucial time if you have a gambling compulsion."
Wexler was a gambler. He remembers listening to the radio under the pillow while having sex with his wife. He remembers gambling on hockey three months before he realized it was played on ice. He even remembers a day in 1968, when he rushed his wife to the hospital, hoping she would die so he could use the insurance money to pay his debts.
This is the league's unrecognized partner. Gambling. If you believe the estimates, there will be $7-billion -- with a "b" -- wagered on Sunday's Super Bowl.
And if he could stop it, Jeff Pash would.
Pash, executive vice president of the NFL, has heard the argument that it is gambling that grants the league much of its popularity. He disagrees.
"Eight years ago, we supported a bill that banned gambling in 49 of the 50 states," Pash said. "And we've never been stronger. More kids will watch the Super Bowl than watch MTV all year. More women will watch it than watch the Academy Awards. That's not because of some bet.
"If the NFL could, it would do away with all gambling. I think it would cost us very, very few fans. People watch because they have a rooting interest, not a betting interest."
Sometimes, however, they have both.
* * *
His name is Brick, and he's a compulsive gambler.
Perhaps he should have known he was in trouble earlier. Maybe when he went to his father to ask for $6,000 to pay off the bookies. Perhaps when he went back, only a few weeks later, to ask for another $2,500. Perhaps when he lost his job.
Certainly by the time he reached a trembling hand toward the doctor, so someone could plunge a needle into his veins, so someone would pay him for his plasma so he could get the money to gamble, he should have known.
But he didn't.
"I didn't want to work," he said. "I didn't want to hold my head up. I was numb. I didn't feel anything."
For Brick, it started when some of his friends seemed excited by a forgettable Thursday night college game. When he asked why, he was told it was because they had money riding. A sweetener.
"Heck, I can pick games," Brick thought.
And so it began. Like many others, Brick started off hot. Then he started losing, and he started chasing the losses, and before he knew it, he was drowning. The thing is, he was convinced, the way most gamblers are, the next bet was going to change everything.
Brick remembers last Super Bowl. He bet on everything, total points by the third quarter, placing his bets across the Internet.
"I was making wild bets, everything you can imagine," he said.
For once, he made out. He won a couple hundred dollars. He was ahead. So he turned on the Internet blackjack.
By morning, his winnings were gone.
* * *
Could there be a fix? Could the mighty NFL, in this day when players are wealthy beyond dreams, when off-the-field activities are monitored so closely, suffer the ultimate betrayal feared by every league?
Of course there could.
Look around. In recent memory, we have seen two NFL owners (the Eagles' Leonard Tose and, indirectly, the 49ers' Eddie DeBartolo) lose their teams after scandals associated with gambling. We have had a starting quarterback (Schlichter) whose gambling addiction led him to prison. We have had college players at Northwestern shave points. Not that long ago, we had two stars -- Paul Hornung and Alex Karras -- suspended for a season because of gambling on their teams.
In 1946, remember, a gambler named Alvin Paris attempted to fix the NFL title game. It wasn't exactly the Black Sox scandal, but it did end with two Giants, Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock, suspended from the league indefinitely for failure to report a bribe attempt. Filchock missed three seasons and Hapes seven.
"The No. 1 threat of gambling is to the integrity of the game, the loss of confidence by the public in the outcome," Pash said. "We want people talking about matchups. We don't want them wondering if a player is watching the over-under.
"Sure, someone could attempt to fix a game. I think it would be very hard, though, because of the mechanics. It's not like having someone drop a fly ball or miss a shot. But you have to acknowledge that it could happen in order to guard against it."
* * *
His name is Rick, and he's a compulsive gambler.
When he boards the airplane on Sunday, perhaps Rick's fellow passengers will feel their blood pressure increase. Perhaps they will wonder about the turbulence ahead, and they will try not to think about crashing.
Rick, on the other hand, is flying away from the Super Bowl.
Once, the Super Bowl loomed in front of Rick like grand forgiveness, like the final bailout for all his problems. On Super Bowl Sunday, he was going to clean the slate.
"By now, I'd be trying to scrounge up as much money as I could," Rick said. "I'd be trying to open as many betting lines as I could. I'd be scrambling so I could bet as much as possible."
He remembers watching Pittsburgh-Dallas in Super Bowl XIII (still remembered as Black Sunday by the bookmakers), and the way the juice ran through him like a drug. He remembers a late Dallas touchdown that cut the margin to 35-31 and earned him a push. He had the Cowboys and four, which meant he got his money back, and even that left him ecstatic.
"It's about the action," Rick said. "Someone once told me that the next best thing to gambling and winning is gambling and losing. I've been just as high in a casino, or watching a game on television, as you can get on cocaine."
Once, Rick was in a relationship for 10 years. One night his girlfriend said to him: "I don't understand you. I was taught that financial responsibilities meant you paid your mortgage, and you paid your utilities, and you put food in the refrigerator, and you paid your car and insurance."
Rick shook his head at the memory. "I was serious as I could be. I told her, "No, you pay off your bookmaker, and you pay off your dope dealer. But if you don't pay off your bookmaker, you don't have any more action, and if you don't pay off your dope dealer, you don't have any more dope. You can always connive to pay the other stuff later.' It was insane, but I didn't know it was insane."
Rick has not made a bet for 3,611 days. He has become a counselor at Gamblers Anonymous, an activist in the struggle to get treatment money from the state of Florida. If you need help, he wants you to call (800) 818-4491.
"If you are a compulsive gambler, your life is going to get worse," Rick said. "If you stop gambling, your life is going to get better. It's as simple as that."
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