Straight Flushed

As marketing of online gambling to college students heats up, college policies are few, critics say.
December 21, 2005

“Win Your Spring Tuition!” proclaims the “College Poker Challenge.”

The homepage of profiles “Chad F.,” a student from the University of Minnesota, who, according to the site, won a $41,000 cash scholarship in 2005 through a competition the site sponsors.

Meanwhile, ads on Facebook say, “practice to kick ass … for your share of $1,000.”

The marketing is legal, but the activity it promotes -- Internet gambling -- is technically illegal in the United States. But because most companies in this arena operate offshore, the government has left the area largely unregulated. Some experts -- as well as students who’ve lost at least a few dollars -- say that colleges need to be doing a much better job of educating students on the dangers of the well-advertised phenomenon, with the number of college-age players (and addicts) seemingly on the rise.

Dan Romer, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, directs the annual Annenberg National Risk Survey of Youth. According to the latest survey results, 580,000 14- to 22-year-olds gamble on the Internet at least once a week. That number has been creeping up since the survey began in 2002, with young men tending to participate in the activity more than women.

Addictions appear to be slightly increasing as well. About 8.7 percent of the young people surveyed reported having a gambling problem, such as spending more than they had planned. “And we have to remember that this is largely an underground phenomenon,” says Romer, as students tend to play solo in their dorm rooms or apartments. “So students are going to be hesitant to report addictive behaviors.”

As with other phenomena like this, the Internet gambling problem tends to pop into the public eye only in extreme cases. This month, Greg Hogan, a Lehigh University sophomore, allegedly held up a bank to pay off thousands of dollars he lost playing online poker, according to a statement by his lawyer.

Romer says that the growth in the marketing of online gambling to college students, as well as television poker shows and positive news articles on students who’ve won online gaming tournaments, has contributed to this addiction problem.

Internet gambling companies frequently contract spokesmen, like Todd Brabender of Spread the News Public Relations, Inc., to contact reporters to highlight collegiate winners -- and the winners only.

After Zachary Dzurick, a Cleveland-based sports writer, received an inquiry from Brabender about doing a positive piece on a recent college poker tournament, Dzurick was curious not just about the students who won, but those who lost as well.

But Dzurick couldn’t get that information. “[B]ecause of confidentiality reasons, we can't tell you specific towns or names -- only the winners info,” wrote Brabender in an e-mail. More than 12,000 students from 300 schools took part in that tournament alone. Jeremy Olisar of Carnegie Mellon University ended up taking home just under $16,000.

“The government could be doing more to stop this kind of advertising,” says Romer. “The law on this issue is unclear, but the government has an obligation to make the law clear.”

Some students find the marketing more irksome than anything. “With online gambling advertisements as ubiquitous as they are today on television and Internet, I feel they have become a bit of an annoyance,” says Eric Kuptz, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering at Michigan State. “Some ads have even persuaded me not to play on particular sites.”

Kuptz says that he currently plays online poker on two different sites, Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker. “On average I play about seven hours per week, mostly on the weekends,” he says. “I originally invested $50 back in April ‘05 and have brought that up to $170, mostly playing $1-$5 buy-in tournaments and small stakes cash games.”

Lauren, a student at Loyola University in Chicago, hasn’t been so lucky. She recently blogged that she has an addiction to online gambling, sometimes spending vast amounts of time playing poker instead of studying.

“Sure, it might not seem as pernicious as other troubling hallmarks of the college experience like binge drinking or unprotected sex,” she wrote. “But at least colleges have taken major steps towards educating students to prevent these practices. Condom distribution and hazing prohibitions are measures many universities have taken. But online gambling only takes a credit card or debit card and an Internet connection. Which puts pretty much every college student at risk.”

Keith Whyte, director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, agrees with Patrizi, saying that he doesn’t know of any college that offers a comprehensive gambling addiction service.

“There needs to be more awareness on campuses regarding the illegal and addictive nature of this problem,” says Whyte, who notes that he doesn’t take issue with legal gambling. “There are all kinds of health promotion campaigns, but very few ‘play responsibility’ campaigns.”

Romer also says that universities should be doing more, but, he says, “the problem is how.” “Most university counseling centers are set up to help with drug or alcohol problems,” he says. “They don’t encourage students to come to counselors for gambling addiction, because they just don’t know how to treat it. But it’s an addiction like any other.”


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