|There was no such thing as "Internet gambling" when Art Schlichter was a teen in the 1970s. Televised Texas Hold 'Em matches were unheard of. No one talked about fantasy football. The bracketology of the NCAA basketball tourney had yet to become a consuming science. No, Schlichter got into gambling the old-fashioned way. As a high school student he visited a horse track 40 miles from home. The bets ranged from $2 to $5 at first. But Schlicter told Sports Illustrated that by his senior year he was wagering as much as $20 a pop and well on his way to a compulsion that would destroy his life. |
Schlichter—a four-year starting quarterback for Ohio State University—has since become a poster boy for gambling addiction. A No. 1 NFL draft pick by the Colts in 1982, he was suspended the following year for gambling and was out of the league entirely by 1986. He estimates that he stole upwards of $1 million in order to gamble or cover his debts, and he writes in his autobiography, Busted, that between 1994 and 2006 he spent "ten years, seven months and two weeks, inside 44 various jails or prisons." Schlichter's father committed suicide during one of those stints behind bars.
In 1998, Schlichter's ex-wife, Michelle, wrote a column for Plugged In, detailing the damage her then-husband's gambling addiction caused her family. Schlichter was in prison when Michelle penned her story.
"Things are still difficult, especially for my daughters," Michelle wrote. "They both know the whole story—where he is and why he's there. I take them to visit him every couple of weeks or so and they love seeing him, but it's always under such strained circumstances. They're able to talk but it's not the same as having Daddy to play with. … Gambling cost Art his freedom, his reputation, his career, his family. It cost my children their father. It cost me my husband. It ruined us financially and embarrassed us publicly. It devastated every area of our lives."
Double and Nothing
These days, gambling is rarely seen as a sin. When Schlichter made his first bet, gaming was still illegal in most states, and there was a certain societal stigma attached to it. Since then, gambling has been increasingly glamorized in film and television, and the odor of impropriety that engulfed the pastime was largely gone by the 1990s. By the time Plugged In touched on the issue in 1998, gambling had gone mainstream. But it still wasn't ubiquitous.
The same cannot be said a dozen years later. Gaming has infiltrated our homes, offices and schools. There are 19 states that allow legal casino gaming within its borders, and 42 that offer some sort of lottery. Several highly rated gambling shows proliferate on television. The online variety generated $6.6 billion in 2007, despite the fact that Internet gaming isn't even legal in some states.
Of the 500 million Facebook pages in existence, the most popular by far is "Texas HoldEm Poker," with 28 million users. Many of these fans, judging from the page's profile pictures, are too young to drive, much less wager. And some look as if they're not even 13, which is the minimum age to become part of the Facebook community. Granted, Facebook's Texas HoldEm isn't a "gambling" site per se. While players can earn prizes, they don't lay bets to participate. But one has to wonder whether playing a few free hands of Texas HoldEm might encourage younger players to hunt down action elsewhere for higher stakes. And depending on how kids are wired, it may not take much prodding.
21 or Bust? Not So Much.
For many youth, their gambling careers start out innocently enough. "I bet I can outrun you to the corner," one kid might say to another. "Oh, yeah? A dollar says you lose." It's birthed by friendly competition. But it progresses rapidly from there. Maybe a teen joins a rotisserie sports league, where for a fee he can "own" a team of pro baseball or football players and possibly win a cash prize at the end of the season. Perhaps a schoolmate passes around brackets during March Madness. Maybe some friends organize a semi-regular poker game, playing for nickels, dimes and quarters.
For many teens, that's as far as they'll go. They're not playing to hit the jackpot as much as to socialize. In their own minds it's no different than playing a pickup game of basketball or going to the movies: It's simply another activity to do with your buddies. But for others, such seemingly innocent pastimes can lead to more serious forms of gaming. And while previous generations might've been stopped cold at the casino door until they turned 21, today's teens have access to a world of gambling with the click of a mouse.
Type in the words "Internet gambling" on Google, and you'll get about 24.9 million hits—many of them sites which allow users to input a credit card number and gamble to the limit. Granted, these sites require some basic information to play. They ask where you live (Internet gambling isn't legal in every state) and, of course, require that you reveal your age. But very few sites do more than ask. According to the University of California, Berkeley (which conducts research on underage gambling), if a user lies about his age and has his own credit card, the typical online gambling parlor will still open its virtual doors.
Young gamers have plenty of incentive to visit these online casinos, which are promoted on cable practically every day via televised gambling tourneys. These competitions can boast pots worth millions, and the winners are sometimes fresh-faced blokes in their early twenties.
"Two of the last three winners of the [World Series of Poker] Main Event qualified for the tournament by winning an online tournament first," noted the researchers at UC-Berkeley. "From here, it is only logical that computer-proficient teens who like watching poker would start playing online so that they can improve their skills and someday play on TV like their heroes do. In fact, 19.6 percent of young men gamble online, 2.4 percent gambling on a weekly basis. By gambling at such an early age, these young men are more likely to become pathological gamblers as adults."
It makes perfect sense, really. Younger minds are far more elastic. Just as it's easier to learn French when we're younger, it's also easier to create templates for lifelong habits, good or bad. According to familyfirstaid.org, 80 percent of teens gamble at least once a year. Meanwhile, a 2007 survey found that one in 10 teens in the state of New York had a gambling problem.
Know When to Walk Away … and When to Run
Warning signs that your teen may be struggling with this issue include declining grades, withdrawal from family and friends and, of course, habitual money problems. How can parents protect teens from slipping into the habit? They can start with the following steps:
• Share your concerns about gambling, and discuss its addictive nature.
Because it is so pervasive in today's society, your children might not even know that there are dangers—financial, moral, social, psychological and spiritual—associated with it.
• Walk through gray areas according to your own convictions.
Are games of chance always sinful? Is church bingo wrong? Is it OK to fill out a March Madness bracket if no money is involved? Make sure that you have prayerfully thought through your rationale, and be prepared to explain it to your child.
• Stay involved.
The more time you spend talking and interacting with your kids, the more influence you'll have, and the more likely they'll talk with you about any issue, including this one.
• Observe common-sense rules of Internet safety.
Placing the computer in an open, well-trafficked area and keeping a close watch on teens' online activities will help prevent them from spending time in an online casino.
• Use gambling as a springboard to talk about other financial issues.
Saving. Budgets. Credit. The perils of debt. While some teens gamble socially or for the thrill of it, others see it as a fast track to financial independence, unaware that it will actually enslave them. Give them a healthy, biblical perspective on money and our responsibility to be good stewards of it.
As we've seen in the case of Art Schlichter, gambling can destroy lives. The former pro athlete says that, during one of his stints in prison, he thought the only way out was to kill himself. Eventually, however, he thought better of it. He's been out of prison since 2006 and now runs a gambling prevention organization, serving as an assistant football coach at a Tell City, Ind., high school in his spare time.
"I always try to teach the players to be a good man," Schlichter recently told Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press. "I have related my experiences, both good and bad. I try to help them learn from my mistakes."
Of course, Schlichter admits that he'd made similar statements to friends for decades—just before asking them for a loan. This time, however, Schlichter seems to have turned the corner. But with such compulsions, you can never be sure. Gambling, like any other addiction, can be a brutal thing to kick. As Schlichter's mother, Mila, told The Cincinnati Enquirer, "Once it gets a hold of you and (you) end up in prison contemplating suicide, you see it's something that's much more than a habit."
Published July 2010
For other Plugged In articles about this issue, read TV Poker Tutors Teens and Video Gambling a Bad Bet for Families