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Jerry Sullivan: Sports gambling is legal, but trust me, it's still addictive

Last month, I spent a week in Las Vegas to visit my daughter. On Saturday, I found my way to the sports book in the Luxor and bet on two baseball games. I won both. On Sunday, I bet another and won that, too.

Each bet was $20, a modest sum to pay for the thrill of waiting for the games to come in. This is easy, I thought. I could do this for a living. Then I came to my senses and remembered that I had sworn off sports betting more than 30 years earlier.

It's easy, all right. Easy to be sucked back in, to feel you're the smartest guy in the room. I gambled every day for two years in my late 20s and eventually realized it wasn't about the games or the money, but the rush of the "action." When I called in a bet, it was like sticking a needle in my arm.

The brain remembers.

That's what I was thinking Monday when the news broke that the Supreme Court had struck down a law against sports betting. It wasn't about how soon it would come to New York, or whether the pro leagues would get their slice of the pie, but how it could open the door to young problem gamblers.

Look, I'm aware that illegal sports gambling is a huge enterprise. It's part of human nature to wager. The New York Times estimates that $150 billion a year is gambled illegally in this country. It's big business, and no surprise that state governments want to get in on the action, as they did with state lotteries.

Legalizing sports betting will presumably take it out of the shadows, away from the mob. The pro leagues want to take a cut of the profits as "integrity fees," on the dubious premise that legal gambling will require them to pay more to keep their games pure.

But there's no joy in seeing our culture surrender to gambling. I call it the dark side of the American Dream. If hard work won't get you that house, there's always the Powerball. Casinos and state lotteries are everywhere. Every gas station has become a de facto lottery emporium.

A recent study by UB's Research Institute on Addictions found that living within 10 miles of a casino doubles one's risk of becoming a problem gambler. The study also found that the problem can increase during teenage years and reach its highest level in the 20s and 30s.

People who want to gamble have always found a way. But legalizing sports gambling will provide greater access. The NFL has a problem with young fans for whom it's no longer about the game, but gambling and fantasy leagues. The league puts a principled front, but they know it'll be good for business.

Donna Possenti is the director of clinical services at Jewish Family Service, where she has run the Gambling Recovery Program for 17 years. Possenti says opportunity is risk for a gambler. Access to legal gambling is bound to create problems, particularly in a town with as much passion for sports as Buffalo.

"Sports is something people really bond over," Possenti said. "Unlike going to the casino, sports is really embedded in our society. It's where people gather, a full-time recreation for a lot of people. So, yes, I do think it is going to have an impact on young males and other young people who have not entered into the gambling arena before and may find themselves in trouble."

Possenti said gambling isn't inherently evil. But for the people who get addicted, it's a big problem, one they often don't confront until they've lost a job or put their marriage and financial life in ruins.

"Somebody had a big win once, and they're always looking for a big win again," Possenti said. "The slogan you see driving down the 33. 'A dollar and a dream.' They put the numbers up there. People do believe, 'Hey, if I would just win this, all my issues in life would be better. I could quit that job I hate.' "

I actually quit my job at 30 to gamble. Eventually, I ran out of money and my bookie dropped me. I was placing bets through a friend in Rhode Island. If there had been betting parlors on every corner, I might not have stopped. That's why legal sports gambling gives me a sick feeling in my stomach.

One of my sports writing pals said he's in favor of legal gambling, because it takes it above board. He says it's about responsibility. That's fine for most people. But once the door to gambling swings open, personal responsibility can give way to an emotional rush that science proves is similar to a drug high.

Arnie Wexler, former director of the National Council for Compulsive Gambling, was more blunt. Wexler told USA Today that legal sports gambling will create an epidemic of hooked gamblers. He said in two years there would be a surge of problems similar to what happened when Atlantic City got casinos 40 years ago.

"It's gonna be crazy," Wexler said. "We’re opening the door to a major gambling addiction problem, but the states are making money, and that’s all it’s about. Nobody cares about people’s lives being destroyed."

Second-rate politicians have been selling gambling to their constituents for years as a job creator in tough economic times. No wonder Chris Christie has been at the forefront of legal sports gambling in New Jersey.

Lawmakers act as if the gambling money comes from the sky, free revenue for struggling municipalities. The money comes from the pockets of losers. It's convenient to believe it's a benign, profitable pastime without victims.

Possenti said she was happy to get a phone call about gambling addiction. The state has cut off all the program's funds for prevention, which has made it harder to get the message out. Maybe they don't have anything left after funding those splashy billboards advertising "A dollar and a dream."

Well, Americans are in love with gambling. If the next generation is destined to be the first to accumulate less wealth than its parents, at least they'll inherit a country that's becoming one vast gambling playground.

Give a cheer for legalized sports wagering. But don't be shocked when you hear that the kid down the street, or the guy in the office, is over his head in gambling debt.

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