NC’s betting blitz: Billions wagered, lives shattered | Eastern North Carolina Now

The lives behind the numbers and the havoc that gambling will wreak on their families and communities


By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
May 24, 2024

Two months after sports betting became legal in North Carolina, the numbers are jaw-dropping: more than $1 billion wagered between March 11 and April 30 ($1.3 billion if you include incentives offered by the industry to lure people in); $105 million lost by gamblers in April alone; $171.7 million raked in by sports betting companies.

But it’s the lives behind the numbers and the havoc that gambling will wreak on their families and communities that most concern the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.

“The Raleigh News & Observer just featured a moving story about Aaron Ward, a former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman. Aaron’s life was devastated by gambling. His addiction led to personal and professional ruin, underscoring the severe consequences of this vice,” Creech said. “His story is a stark reminder of the dangers that come with gambling.”

The fact that the state is inundated with gambling advertisements creates a pervasive and destructive presence in communities, Creech said, citing the PNC Arena — filled with ads for online sports books — as an illustration .

Both Ward and Michelle Malkin, an East Carolina University criminal justice professor, talked to the N&O about the ads, which Ward, now in recovery, called “nauseating” and “painful.”

Malkin said she’s not surprised by the number of ads, especially on radio and TV, but she’s concerned about the number of people, especially young ones, that they draw in with introductory specials. For example, deals offering $250 in gambling credit for a mere $10.

“The problem is, if you’re not educated in gambling, and the mind isn’t fully formed in young adults, it sounds more attractive than it should,” Malkin told the newspaper. “Someone who gets an early win in the first few months, we’re particularly concerned that if they don’t know how to set limits, they’ll chase the high of that win.”

Ward, who started gambling in college with $5 to $20 sports bets, did plenty of chasing until his addiction caught up with him. While the wagers grew to thousands of dollars, he thought he was playing it smart: never betting on hockey where he might be pressured to influence a game and having a go-between to place his bets through illegal bookmakers, keeping his identity secret.

“I just felt like I had everything under control,” he told N&O sports columnist Luke DeCock.

But his fantasy was shattered in 2015 when his wife discovered some of the gambling he’d tried to hide and the ensuing argument landed him in jail for the weekend facing charges of assault on a female and interfering with emergency communications. Although the charges were later dropped, the ordeal cost him his marriage, the sports media job he’d landed in Canada after his successful hockey career, and more. He told DeCock that he has had to build new relationships with his three children, whose childhoods were marred by his gambling.

Finally facing his predicament, Ward got help initially through an assistance program offered by the National Hockey League and has since been able to help others struggling with gambling addiction.

Both Malkin and the Rev. Creech say the North Carolina Legislature, which approved online sports betting just last year, isn’t setting aside enough funding to help problem-gamblers. Malkin’s research has shown that the state had a 5.5 percent rate of problem gambling as of 2022.

“The legalization of sports gambling will only worsen the problem. The enticing bonuses and pervasive advertising prey particularly on young adults,” Creech said. “The ubiquitous presence of gambling ads is not just a nuisance; it is a catalyst for addiction and a barrier to recovery. It exploits the vulnerable and glorifies a practice that can lead to financial ruin, broken families, and shattered lives.”

He said March and April statistics show how the bonuses influence gambling and how quickly gamblers’ fortunes change. According to the State Lottery Commission, which is tasked with regulating sports betting, paid winnings for April were more than $53 million less than those from the three weeks in March. Bettors risked more than $648 million in April and more of that was in real dollars, as companies offered fewer bonuses. And they suffered bigger losses to the tune of an additional $40 million.

“We need stricter regulations on gambling advertisements and more substantial funding for addiction treatment programs. We can be certain that Aaron Ward’s story is quickly becoming the story for hundreds of North Carolinians,” Creech said.

He called on churches across the Tar Heel State, regardless of denomination, to join the fight to prevent further expansion of gambling.

“Most have statements against gambling; now is the time to act on these words and oppose gambling initiatives,” he said. “Powerful donors are funding campaigns to push gambling legislation. Only the righteous indignation of our churches can stop them.”

As an example, Creech pointed to Pennsylvania billionaire and former professional gambler Jeffrey Yass. According to WRAL, Yass gave a whopping $1 million to a committee controlled by GOP legislative leaders in the fall of 2022, just months before the General Assembly voted to allow sports gambling. Reports show Yass is now the nation’s largest donor to federal campaigns and committees.

Creech said Christians across the state must implore their lawmakers to reject any initiatives to expand gambling.

To learn more about the state of gambling in North Carolina, visit the gambling tab of the Christian Action League website.

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