As Super Bowl betting reaches a fever pitch this week, advocates for gambling addicts are telling newspapers and websites to play fair: Those publishing the point spread should include a help number for problem gamblers.
"If you're going to list a betting line, list a help line," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "This is something that's completely fallen on deaf ears. A portion of their best customers are people with severe gambling problems. There has to be a sensitivity there."
As many as half of all American adults will bet on Sunday's Super Bowl game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, some analysts say. Around $8 billion will change hands, mostly illegally through private transactions, offshore operations, organized crime and office pools, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. Whyte and other outreach advocates believe addicts will account for 2 to 10 percent of the transactions.
Many gamblers place a wager based on the point spread, the number that is supposedly intended to predict the margin of victory but is really devised to split the betting between both teams. As of this writing, the Patriots were 2 1/2-point favorites over the Giants. That means if a bettor wagers on the Patriots to beat the spread, New England will have to win by more than 2 1/2 points for the bettor to collect. Someone wagering on the Giants to beat the spread would collect if the Giants either win or lose by less than 2 1/2 points.
The point spread is published in mainstream newspapers such as USA Today, plus thousands of websites. They also provide information on other betting options, such as the "over-under" for total points scored in the game.
Given that only the state of Nevada legally permits the booking of single-game bets (three other states allow more limited sports betting), and the chances of someone flying to Las Vegas to book a bet are slim, most readers are likely using the information to make an illegal bet. Up to 10 percent of those gamblers can't control their impulses. As long as that dynamic exists, critics argue, why not offer help for those who might need it?
"That would be the responsible thing to do," said Arnie Wexler, a New Jersey-based counselor for gambling addicts.
A few sites run disclaimers that the betting line is for entertainment purposes only -- but few buy that line. Danny Sheridan, who provides the betting odds in USA Today and predicts game outcomes for private clients at an undisclosed fee, said he once bent to political correctness by including a disclaimer. Not anymore.
Sheridan said the financial meltdown hasn't slowed sports betting a bit, but he thinks the estimated number of compulsive gamblers is inflated. Betting is a product of living in a free society, he argued, noting that stock investors are free to gamble millions away without the same scrutiny. If listing a 1-800 outreach phone number is necessary, he asked, should one be posted for any subject that might be sensitive?
"If I write an article about milkshakes, should I include a help line for Overeaters Anonymous?" said Sheridan.
The National Council on Problem Gambling estimated it received 301,000 calls last year. The volume has increased 10 to 15 percent every year for the last decade, Whyte said.
Wexler said he receives hundreds of phone calls following the Super Bowl, many from flat-broke gamblers who tried to overcome previous losses with life-ruining large bets. The cries for help often arrive the very next morning.
"The biggest time I ever have is after the Super Bowl," he said.
Readers who think they might have a gambling problem are encouraged to call one of the following:
1-800-GAHELPS (Gamblers Anonymous)
1-800-522-4700 (National Council on Problem Gambling)
1-888-LASTBET (Arnie and Sheila Wexler Associates)
All calls are confidential.