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Study Author Outlines 2012 Survey Findings

Wagering is now more normalized, with more state-sanctioned and electronic gambling options

Q&A with the study’s co-author

Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, the director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University in Montreal, has co-authored the 2008 and 2012 NCAA studies on student-athlete gambling behaviors. Following is a Q&A with the world-renowned expert on the subject.

McGill professor co-authors NCAA wagering study

Jeffrey Derevensky

Not many people know more about gambling behaviors and their effects than Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky, the director of the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University in Montreal.

What got him started more than two decades ago after graduating from C.W. Post and earning a master’s and Ph.D. at McGill was his early research into children’s toys, of all things. When Nintendo launched its first video games in the 1980s, Derevensky began studying whether anything in real life simulated a video game.

He found elements in the video game industry that resembled the gambling industry, and to his dismay found that young people were gambling and were in fact having some problems. At that time there were a few studies about problem gambling, but nobody was asking why it was happening.

He and NCAA Principal Research Scientist Tom Paskus co-authored the 2008 and 2012 studies that have established a few concerning facts: Student-athletes aren’t immune to problem gambling; gambling behavior is increasingly accepted as normative; and access to gambling is everywhere.

“Early in my career I was collecting data from young people at a high school, and I thanked them for participating, and as I was leaving, one of the kids said, “Sir, where are you going? There’s work to be done. We have problems. Somebody has to help us, ” Derevensky said. “We began looking at risk factors involved in gambling and trying to figure out how to prevent them. Teens are learning about the effects of taking drugs, drinking and driving and having safe sex, but very few people are looking at gambling prevention.”

That’s when Derevensky helped create the International Center at McGill, which started off as a research hub and then evolved into using that research to suggest prevention and treatment. For the past two decades, gambling became more normative and more popular around the world. Also, the types of gambling have exploded, as has the way in which people gamble. As a result, many college students – not just student-athletes – are gambling more online, and they’re using cell phones and PDAs to do it.

The National Center for Responsible Gaming recently honored Derevensky with its coveted Scientific Achievement Award, one of dozens of accolades Derevensky has earned from his research over time.

What are the most alarming trends you’ve seen to date?

Derevensky: There are several. Perhaps the one from which all others emerge is the global normalization of the behavior. The gambling industry has done a terrific job in that regard – they don’t even call themselves gambling anymore. Now it’s “gaming” – They’re selling entertainment. They’ve gotten away from the sin-and-vice image that had been associated with gambling to where it’s now a normal socially acceptable behavior. TV also has done a remarkable job advertising gambling, not just through sports but though poker tournaments. ESPN has been able to develop inexpensive programming along those lines that has attracted millions of people. The electronic forms of gambling have made it accessible to the average person 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even the government is in on the act, supporting lotteries as an easy kind of “voluntary taxation.”

What about other trends and concerns?

Derevensky: The landscape has changed dramatically. There are more states with casinos than ever before. When the NCAA initiated its first gambling task force in 2003, only Nevada and New Jersey had casinos. Now there are plenty of casinos in Florida, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana and many other states. Also, electronic forms of gambling are becoming increasingly popular. In 2003, very few people even thought of gambling online. Now you can wager virtually on anything online. There were odds on what Prince William and Kate Middleton were going to name their baby. You can gamble on who’s going to be the next Pope, or the next President. There were odds on where Angelina Jolie would adopt her next child from. In that vein, there is now live in-game betting – odds generated in real-time for participants to bet on various aspects of a game as it unfolds. About 10 percent of male student-athletes in the 2012 study who wager on sports have engaged in live in-game betting. “Spot fixing” is another one. Spot fixing is just a single mid-game event or portion of a contest needing to be fixed for a bet to pay off. It’s generally seen as easier to do and harder to detect than manipulating a final outcome.

What about the technology? Has gaming through social media become pervasive?

Derevensky: Simulated forms of gambling – often referred to as “practice sites” – that’s the new phenomenon. We currently don’t know if there’s a causal relationship between simulated forms of gambling (for virtual currency) prompts actual gambling. We do know, however, that as simulated gambling goes up, so do these actual gambling and gambling-related problems.

What do you mean by simulated forms of gambling?

Derevensky: If you play a simulated form of gambling online, such as virtual slots or fantasy sports or filling out brackets for “virtual money,” it hasn’t been proven that it will prompt you to gamble for real money. But the link is rather intuitive, isn’t it? Playing for “fun” or the “social media-type” games often have greater payouts than the real-money games do. So if you’re playing these games and you’re winning all this virtual money, the natural thought is that, gee, if I had only been playing for real money, look how much I would have made. One of the most frightening findings we’ve recently found in terms of motivation for gambling is that children, teens and even young adults are gambling either for virtual or real money to relieve boredom. It’s just a click away.

If gambling is so normative, why does the NCAA continue to be so restrictive?

Derevensky: The NCAA is still concerned with the well-being of its athletes and the integrity of the game. Our studies have shown a number of student-athletes have admitted to altering the outcome of the game because of their own gambling-related problems. If you know what the point spread is and you can manipulate the outcome, then it’s an easy way to make money. We all know that there are problem gamblers – even the gaming industry acknowledges that. We also know that most people don’t have a problem. So from the perspective of the NCAA’s rules being overly restrictive, perhaps they are for 98 percent of the population who are not experiencing a gambling problem. But for the 2 percent of youth experiencing gambling problems and their families and friends, this is a devastating disorder that impacts every aspect of their lives. The short-term and long-term consequences are as severe as having a drug or alcohol problem.

How do audiences accept you when you’re presenting around the world?

Derevensky: These days, the most receptive crowd is the industry itself. Years ago, I gave a talk to the Internet gambling industry and they regarded me as a pariah. Somebody in the audience emailed me afterward in fact and said that while it was an interesting presentation, why was I walking back and forth across the stage so much? I answered, “It’s harder to hit a moving target.” Now, the industry is looking at “responsible gaming.” They are concerned about keeping players safe; making sure that people don’t lose their homes, drop out of school, get involved in illegal behaviors or commit suicide because they’re overwhelmed by their gambling problems. Nobody wants that.

What about the reception from colleges and universities?

Derevensky: It’s a little more under the radar at the collegiate level. Most people are more familiar with drug and alcohol issues and violence on campus. But gambling is just like alcohol. While it’s a normalized behavior – for example, with drinking, the message is “as long as you’re old enough and you drink responsibly, then you’re OK.” But you can’t become an alcoholic if you don’t start drinking. And you can’t become a problem gambler if you don’t start gambling. At the youth level, authorities talk with young people about drinking, but not about gambling. We do need more prevention, education, awareness and treatment programs for our youth and their parents.

What’s your advice for colleges and universities now?

Derevensky: First of all, don’t ignore it. Does it affect, or is it harmful to, the majority of your student population? Probably not. But is it negatively affecting at least some of your students? Absolutely. I was with a university president once whose school had collected research on gambling behaviors on campus, but he said he wasn’t going to release the results. I asked him why, and he said he couldn’t trust “gambling researchers” because they would make a big deal of three people out of 5,000 having a problem. I said I understood, but I added that by not releasing the findings, people think you’ve got something to hide. That convinced him to be more transparent. Just like most campuses have policies on drugs and alcohol, they need a policy on gambling.

What’s a good way to spot problem gambling behavior?

Derevensky: It’s difficult to do, because not many problem gamblers are open about their situation. But if you notice someone who maybe talks a lot about gambling or is pretty secretive about where he’s going, then that’s a clue. Also, problem gamblers become consumed with the behavior, and everything else tends to slide. If someone who had been doing well in class begins to let his or her grades slip, or if a usually outgoing person becomes reclusive, and of course if that person starts having financial trouble, then problematic gambling might be at the root of those behaviors.

Are there approaches on campus that are known to work?

Derevensky: Student-athletes report that coaches and teammates are their primary influences, so programs targeting those people – particularly coaches – are helpful. I like the idea of involving student services groups as well. The more campus-wide involvement, the better. This is a more general student issue, and not one that affects only student-athletes. It’s important to understand that what starts off as a fun, harmless activity can lead to other serious problems. One or two out of 100 college students having a problem isn’t likely to set the world on fire, but if you approach the gambling issue as being among a number of things that can negatively impact student health and well-being, then your odds of resonating, so to speak, are much greater. It’s important to remember that every problem gambler tends to seriously impact a dozen other people: boyfriends, girlfriends, peers, teammates, coaches, parents and employers. And for student-athletes, it can jeopardize their eligibility.