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A New Debt Epidemic: The Risky Wager Of Online Sports Betting

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. March 12, 2024 is National Gambling Addiction Screening Day. If you think you or someone you know might be struggling with a gambling addiction, you can access resources here

For many, the American Dream begins with an acceptance letter from their preferred university. A formal education is supposed to develop students into more well-rounded human beings, ensuring financial security and cultivating personal independence. Unfortunately, in recent years some students have found themselves exiting college with more than just a degree. As sportsbooks create direct digital appeals to college-aged youth, more and more young people, especially young men, find themselves with gambling addictions, developed through sports betting with friends, and debt that follows them their whole lives. With this disadvantaged start, many college-aged youth — whether they are in school or not — are finding it more challenging than ever to achieve anything that even remotely resembles the American Dream.

The novelty of online sports betting means that the consequences of legalization have only just begun to emerge.

The danger of sports gambling addiction is not new. In 1992 Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or PASPA, which prevented governmental agencies from authorizing sports betting. Fast-forward to 2018 and the Supreme Court ruled that PASPA violated the anticommandeering rule which has resulted in a state-by-state patchwork of regulation on the gaming industry. Since 2018, in-person sports betting has become legal in 38 states and 30 states have legalized online sports betting as well. The novelty of online sports betting means that the consequences of legalization have only just begun to emerge. However, the significant detrimental impacts that online sports betting has on youth, families and communities are already evident.

Sports betting is having an enormous impact on society and it is disproportionately impacting the lives of young men who are less risk-averse and interested in sports. Nearly 60 percent of 18 to 22-year-olds have bet on sports and 20-year-old males represent about 40 percent of the calls to hotlines for gambling addiction. The targeting of college youth, who often have access to financial aid — which can be redirected to fund their addiction — has compounded the burden of college debt with gambling debts and the costs of addiction therapy.

According to Kindbridge Behavioral Health, 20 percent of the adult male population are now or have been in debt from sports betting. That figure represents roughly 20 million men and does not include the financial losses of those men who have not gone into debt from sports betting. Indeed, one study from 1997 estimated that those with gambling disorders cost society almost $10,000 per problem gambler per year and people in this study were more likely to be on welfare, declare bankruptcy, or be arrested or incarcerated. More research is needed to evaluate what these numbers would look like today, but the increased prevalence of gambling gives good grounds for thinking these estimates are even higher now. Beyond the outrageously high cost of sports betting for communities and the government, there is also the weight of the, often secret, debt that crushes each individual’s life and impacts their community.  

Sports bets are often perceived as less risky because they are falsely believed to be skill-based rather than luck-based.

Online sports gambling has spread with speed, in part due to targeted advertising, the prevalence of an always-online culture and the state governments’ financial incentives to remove barriers to gambling. Advertising often downplays the risks while including incentives for sports fans like referral bonuses and glamorizing it with celebrity endorsements. Additionally, sports bets are often perceived as less risky because they are falsely believed to be skill-based rather than luck-based. And, the online format of sports betting apps also stimulates the brain in the same way that social media sites do with the added addictive quality of gambling. The advertisements then follow users from site to site as a nagging reminder to bet again. And, of course, the online nature of sports betting through apps removes natural barriers to traditional gambling like driving to casinos and navigating the learning curves that go along with table games.

Sports betting advertising can be particularly difficult to avoid for college students, especially on university campuses that have partnered with online sports betting platforms. According to Paul Solman reporting for PBS, Michigan State, LSU, Maryland, University of Denver and the University of Colorado made multi-year contracts with sports betting companies to allow ads at their games and on their campuses. Solman reported that, “Colorado was actually paid for bets made using a university promo code, until that deal became public.” Universities are actively choosing to develop partnerships with sports books that drive students into greater debt while increasing the profits of the institution. 

For college students, all this is compounded by a lack of financial literacy and an overdependence on system I processing in still underdeveloped brains. The system I processing of our brains, which is associated with intuition and quicker responses, is abused by various gambling apps to increase the frequency of wagers. The impact of gambling on one’s cognitive faculties is still being researched but there are studies that suggest a link between the way the mind of a cocaine user and a gambling addict both process negative emotions. Moreover, many students have a deficit in financial literacy. Skills like budgeting, saving and managing one’s debt have not yet sunk in. This combination of factors makes young people particularly vulnerable to gambling problems.

A Public Justice Framework

The way sportsbooks currently operate by targeting vulnerable college students and leading many of them into crushing debt is to provide them with only a destructive sort of happiness. As the Center for Public Justice’s core value on human dignity states: “We uphold the inherent dignity of all people. Though marred by sin, every person is created in the image of God and endowed with the ability and responsibility to actively contribute to the renewal of public life.” Having been made in the image of God, all human persons share an inherent human dignity, but gambling addiction can paralyze people in a way that leads to their neglecting the call to live this out. Thus, it is critical that Christian citizens take notice of this issue and act on behalf of those who are being taken advantage of by sportsbooks.

Furthermore, gambling has far-reaching effects on society. Financial burdens and addictions upset family stability. Financial issues are well-known to be associated with increased rates of divorce, and they may also lead to a delay in having children which itself can impact a society’s population stability and economic development. Gambling addictions also strain governmental resources when treating the addictions after they have formed. Without preventative measures in place, merely providing addiction treatment resources is like putting a Band-Aid on a problem that requires surgery. The Center for Public Justice’s Guidelines on the family state, “Public policy should, therefore, take carefully into account the ways that other institutions and the dynamics of society impact families positively and negatively.” Therefore, it is also essential for government to introduce regulation in virtue of the negative real-world consequences on the family and society as a whole.

The Role of Government

The Center for Public Justice recognizes that the role of government includes “upholding the common good of the political community,” and “adjudicating public laws for the safety, welfare and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction.” As we have seen, the Supreme Court ruling pushed the burden of regulation onto the states to address. In order to uphold economic justice, state governments must uphold a legal framework that recognizes, protects and encourages the full range of human responsibilities. Part of that responsibility should include ensuring that sportsbooks are not directly appealing to college-aged youth. 

In the Law and Psychology Review paper, “Better Bettors: Regulatory Proposals to Reduce Societal Costs Associated with Gambling Disorder in States that Permit Legal Sports Betting,” Joey Parsons argues for state government regulatory proposals that would force sportsbooks to meet their obligations by ensuring economic justice and upholding human dignity.

Parson’s recommends implementing an established set of guidelines for responsible sports betting. These should be modeled after the FDA’s food label guidelines. Information-based and prescriptive, these guidelines would produce budgetary recommendations for money wagered as a maximum percentage of disposable income and time spent gambling. Also, by defaulting betting caps in sports betting apps, it decreases the likelihood that a user will exceed that cap and increases the likelihood of utilizing other default budget limiting tools.

Additionally, a “premortem” — or worst case scenario analysis — should be used to tame one’s optimism of a wager by encouraging users to only follow through with plans if they can accept the consequences of the worst possible scenario. Plain disclosures should include warnings that gambling should never be used to generate wealth, users should refrain from betting when under the influence, all bets should be placed at least 48 hours in advance and that gambling disorders carry hereditary risks.

 The less time there is between stimulus and response the more addictive the experience is. Thus, betting on a particular quarter of a game is more addictive than pregame bets, and live game betting is the most addictive.

Another recommendation is to ban fractional bets on parts of games and live betting that occurs throughout the game. The time of the feedback loop between stimulus (placing a bet) and response (realizing the outcome of the bet) must be increased in order to reduce the addictive qualities of sports betting. States could ban wagers from being placed on games a certain number of hours before start time in order to regulate these feedback loops. The less time there is between stimulus and response the more addictive the experience is. Thus, betting on a particular quarter of a game is more addictive than pregame bets, and live game betting is the most addictive. The incorporation of these suggestions would help to nudge society slightly away from the disaster that awaits it if left unaddressed.

The Obligation of Sportsbooks

Sportsbooks have responsibilities too. They are responsible for ensuring that underage individuals are not receiving betting solicitations and that their platforms do not spark gambling addictions. The Center for Public Justice’s guideline on economic justice states that, “Essential to the proper exercise of every responsibility is the opportunity to be responsible. Oppression or forced marginalization that stifles or destroys a person’s opportunity to exercise responsibility violates human dignity.” Creating and marketing addictive betting apps stifles and destroys an individual’s opportunity to exercise responsibility and violates the dignity of those who are targeted by the predatory practices of sports books. 

The American Gaming Association’s Senior Vice President Casey Clark says that they mitigate against problem gambling by providing public service campaigns and tools within sports-betting apps to set time and budget limits on wagers. Even so, Director Nower of Rutgers University’s Center for Gambling Studies says that “the fastest growing cohort of sports bettors in the state are aged between 21 and 24.” She continues, “Only about one percent of those young bettors make use of the ‘responsible gambling’ measures like play limits or self-exclusion.” Having responsible gambling measures does not make any difference if no one uses them.

As Parsons’s paper indicated, sports betting apps have a role to play in mitigating gambling disorders. The evidence shows that the current steps are not adequately addressing the issue, and the marketing strategy indicates a predatory stance towards youth. Preventing gambling disorders by willfully implementing these measures allows for a steady stream of healthy users rather than a chaos of people addicted to gambling. To burn through customers so quickly, as seems likely to happen on the current trajectory, is to turn off future generations from sports betting apps altogether. The current effects of sportsbooks on youth seem to overshadow whatever positive contributions they might be making to their communities. 


Colleges must immediately stop making marketing deals with sportsbooks for on-campus advertising, and they must begin to equip themselves with the tools to recognize when problem gambling behavior is beginning to form on campus. Some possible solutions might include requiring students not to engage in gambling, hosting a public service campaign informing students about the potentially addictive nature of gambling, providing financial literacy training workshops, and proactively keeping students engaged with healthy alternatives. 

For example, colleges could support alternative sources of dopamine “hits” that provide the same psychological benefits without the dangerous associated behavior. Anna Lempke, a Stanford professor and psychiatrist, describes “flow” as a slow and steady dopamine uptick that comes from healthy pain. Initially painful or uncomfortable experiences can deliver the same dopamine boosts without the crash of hormesis. Examples include cold showers, rough camping or exercise. Other natural sources of dopamine include greater exposure to sunlight, getting regular and adequate sleep, increasing one’s protein intake and listening to music. Some colleges have attempted to promote these habits through mandatory wellness courses.

Families and Churches

Families have a significant role to play in preventing the initial draw towards sports betting and promoting the long term orientation of a person towards proper human flourishing over short term desires. Preventing addiction is most effective when the concern comes from trusted sources like family, friends, or church community. We tend to hold ourselves more accountable to those who are close to us. 

 Preventing addiction is most effective when the concern comes from trusted sources like family, friends, or church community.

The Office of Addiction Services and Supports in New York makes a number of recommendations for parents on how to guide their children away from risky behaviors like gambling. The office recommends that parents should be engaged with their children and take an interest in their lives; teaching them the burden of personal loans and credit cards while also instilling in them the value of a dollar can help to reinforce financial prudence. Parents should always be ready to forgive their children’s mistakes and listen to their concerns in order to facilitate trust especially when approaching the college years as personal independence becomes more relevant. Finally, parents should lead by example by helping children to develop healthy coping skills. 

Churches as well should provide alternative ways of engaging youth to prevent these habits from forming. Mentorship programs help to alleviate problem gambling by introducing positive role models into the lives of young men and women. The Christian Stewardship Network acknowledges that the best place for financial education to start is in the family and that it can be supplemented by churches. Churches can aid by teaching youth how to craft spending plans or budgets which opens up opportunities for other financial topics to be discussed as well.


The legalization of sports betting and the prominence of the online format has negatively impacted the lives of many Americans. The effects have been felt most harshly by college-aged  young men. Leading to a trifecta of addiction, debt and the psychological anguish that goes along with it, a generation of Americans is being taken advantage of without adequate resources to address it. The government and civil society both have roles to play in addressing this issue. 

If we leave the rise of gambling addiction unaddressed, we kick the can down the road and create an even bigger problem. Indeed, with the legalization of online sports betting, these problems will only continue to increase exponentially. Government should provide the framework for addressing this issue while simultaneously supporting other institutions that can prevent further damage from being inflicted on America’s youth. As Christians, we ought to advocate for a strategy of both preventative measures and responsive ones that recognizes our human dignity, our need for cognitive stability, healthy relationships and ultimate purpose as creatures made in the image of God.

Robert Strezo is a senior at Wheaton College studying Political Science with interests in philosophy and theology. He is a Spring 2024 intern for the Center for Public Justice.

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