In light of sports betting scandals at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Alabama, NCSharp spoke with Dr. Michelle Malkin to discuss collegiate gambling, problem gambling and gambling education.
Malkin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University, is a leading national researcher on numerous topics under the umbrella of problem gambling. She regularly speaks at conferences, gives training on problem gambling and publishes on the topic.
Her current research focuses on “gambling awareness, behavior, and risk among 12 of the 16 UNC campuses to gain knowledge of a baseline around gambling before more legalization occurs in the state.”
The imminence of collegiate betting scandals
On April 28, Malkin sat on a panel of gambling experts for a LEAD1 Association webinar titled, “Balancing Risk and Opportunity: What Athletics Departments Need to Know about the College Sports Betting Regulatory Climate.” During the panel, she was asked what the likelihood was that a collegiate gambling scandal would occur in the next three years.
“One hundred percent,” she said.
A few hours later, the bet was placed in Cincinnati that got Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannan fired. A week later, Iowa and Iowa State suspended over 40 student-athletes and numerous university personnel for sports betting infractions that violated NCAA policy.
Three scandals in a week. To Malkin, that was no surprise, and she expressed as much at LEAD1.
“Because of the lack of regulatory oversight, because people do get away with stuff, I think we may have people getting away with stuff more often than we know about it,” she said.
Calling it “stuff” may sound flippant, but in listening to her describe the landscape of collegiate gaming, particularly the lack of oversight and education, “stuff” is a good word.
For many students, that is how they think of gambling. It’s stuff they do with their friends while killing time in a dorm room, watching the Super Bowl or during a pick-up basketball game. It’s stuff to do for fun.
Indeed, claiming ignorance about the legality of placing a bet at a sportsbook is no longer an honest defense for most college students. However, the Friday night card games, Super Bowl squares contests, March Madness brackets and pick-up-game side bets may not register as gambling to many students.
Malkin finds this lack of clarity around what so many college students do for fun challenging when considering how to promote responsible gaming in a legal North Carolina market.
All things considered, legal is better than illegal
Despite her concerns around collegiate gambling and problem gambling in general, Malkin, speaking to NCSharp from her Greenville office, is unequivocal from the start: “legal and regulated gambling is better than illegal and unregulated gambling. It’s always better to have legislation to protect the individual who is gambling.”
Malkin remains consistent even when pressed to consider the impacts on college students.
“Legalizing gaming,” she said, “could lead people who follow the rules to bet more, but legal and regulated gaming is still a better option.”
The implied worse option here is the criminalization of gambling and the attendant illegal markets, but also the lack of formal gambling education that makes problem gambling difficult to combat.
Malkin has seen it firsthand.
“I have personal experience with problem gambling,” she said. “For a long time, so little was known about it. My grandfather gambled, and he became addicted. And at the time it was all normalized.”
This normalization and her experience in higher education led her down the research pathway toward problem gambling.
“In my master’s program (a master’s of science in criminal justice), there was so little on the topic of problem gambling,” Malkin said. “There was also very little on gambling-related crime post-legalization.”
Her research and the research and education needed to help college- and high-school-aged students understand the risks involved with gambling are the reasons a legal market that heavily funds gambling education is sorely needed.
Misconceptions about gambling addiction
Malkin references the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fifth edition), the manual used by mental health professionals in the US, in providing a baseline definition of a problem gambler.
“Per the DSM,” she said, “a problem gambler is a person who’s crossed the invisible line into the realm of uncontrollable gambling.”
What most people misunderstand, and where gambling education is needed, is in explaining that crossing this line is less behavioral and more akin to substance abuse.
“Some would say that gambling addiction is just a lack of willpower but not a brain disorder,” Malkin said. “However, when we look at the brain of a gambler, it looks very similar to the brain of a drug or alcohol addict.”
Misunderstanding this distinction leads to many problems, especially for young people.
“Most kids learn about gambling from their parents,” Malkin said. “That’s how much it’s normalized. There’s even slot machines in Mario Bros. games.”
When seen purely as a behavior, solutions revolve around self-control, discipline and making wise choices. People screw up and feel ashamed. Their families shake their heads and scold them for this weakness. There’s confusion and frustration. However, that paints a very narrow picture of gambling as an addiction.
As the Gateway Foundation, a leading substance abuse treatment center, explains it:
“Compulsive gambling shows signs of measurable changes in your brain chemistry. As a behavioral addiction, gambling addiction is closely connected with how the brain’s reward system functions. Specifically, the effect that gambling has on your brain’s levels of dopamine – a chemical messenger that causes feelings of pleasure – is what makes gambling so addicting.”
Chasing dopamine highs is a significant sign of addiction, and this can happen through drug use just as easily as with gambling.
“We don’t include proper education about how to control gambling from an addiction perspective,” Malkin said.
This is particularly true at the collegiate level.
“With drugs, a student would go through drug education,” Malkin said. “This doesn’t exist for gambling.”
UNC-Chapel Hill has an Alcohol and Substance Abuse Resource Center with courses for preventing and treating alcohol and drug use. Gambling is not listed among the addictions they provide treatment for.
As a result of this landscape, students who already gamble recreationally with their friends may not have the tools to make the necessary connections to addictive behavior. As they up their bets little by little, the probability of them developing gambling addictions innocuously increases.
What is being done and what should be done
In North Carolina, most universities have codes of conduct that ban gambling “unless permitted by law.” Such codes tend to absolve universities from the responsibility to define, regulate and educate students about what qualifies as gambling. While they list some common forms of gambling, including some informal methods such as betting pools, these are provided as examples.
Violations of the code of conduct are typically subject to review, a hearing and a final decision for punishment.
Malkin disagrees when asked whether colleges should punish gambling incidents more stringently. In her view, there are “almost no punishments for gambling because almost nobody is paying attention.”
Certainly, they’re paying attention to significant infractions, like those facing Iowa and Iowa State, but are they paying attention to the Super Bowl squares games and all the “stuff” students get up to?
Malkin thinks not and sees all the unanswered questions as reasons to increase student gambling education.
“Do students know if their poker games are OK or not OK?” Malkin questioned. “And what about graduate students? Does the code apply to them if they’re also teaching classes? With drugs, a student would go through drug education. This doesn’t exist for gambling. If we’re not educating them, how can we be punishing them?”
NCAA restrictions muddy the water for student-athletes
Along with knowing and understanding the law of the state in which they’re studying, student-athletes have the added pressure of knowing and following the NCAA’s policies on gambling.
“NCAA regulations can be confusing to students,” Malkin said.
For one, athletes are not prohibited from betting only on the sport they play. As the NCAA rulebook states, “The NCAA prohibits athletes, coaches, and staff from betting on sports in which the NCAA conducts a championship.”
Therefore, athletes and coaches cannot place legal bets on the NFL, NBA, golf or a collegiate sport their school may not offer if that sport has an NCAA championship.
“Informal wagering among friends or buying a square from a family member on any NCAA sport is prohibited,” Malkin said.
Do students realize this and are they prepared to control it?
“Athletes are more risk-prone in their nature,” Malkin said. “Getting away with making an illegal bet makes it easier to do it again. All athletes have the potential to become problem gamblers.”
Do coaches? Do graduate assistant coaches? Do the staff members in the athletics department, who might also be students, know they’re also responsible for following the NCAA’s rules?
These questions further muddy the waters around gambling regulation on North Carolina college campuses and highlight the enormous gap in gambling education currently offered in North Carolina universities.
How a legal North Carolina sports betting market can answer these questions
If North Carolina wants to lay a strong foundation of gambling education and problem gambling support, three main pushes need to be made.
“If we legalize,” Malkin details, “first, we should put funds into education of the population. Then we need to set aside resources for people suffering from problem gambling, and, third, we need to devote money towards research: baseline studies of people engaging in problem gambling and an awareness of what people need for recovery.”
Research is key. In Malkin’s view, as education increases, the tendency toward punishment and incarceration will be replaced with knowledge about how best to teach gambling awareness and effectively treat gambling addiction.
Need someone to talk to about problem gambling?
More Than A Game is a gambling assistance program that gives North Carolinians a number of easy ways to get in touch and receive support. Run by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, More Than A Game can be reached in the following three ways:
- Phone: 877-718-5543
- Text: Send phrase morethanagamenc to 53342
- Live chat: Via morthanagame.nc.gov