Watching Michael Jordan talk about his affinity for gambling, claiming in the current ESPN documentary about his life that he didn’t — or doesn’t — have a gambling problem, he had a competitiveness problem, reminded me of research I once did for an in-depth story on aggressive-to-compulsive gamblers who also didn’t have a gambling problem, they had a competitiveness problem.
And that competitiveness problem led them, in some cases, to all kinds of heartache, from the loss of their jobs to the loss of their homes to the loss of their families to the loss of their peace of mind.
The difference with Jordan, it seems, is that his need for the action never outdistanced his expanding fortune, allowing him to lose more money than most Americans make in a lifetime to the thirst for the risk, the win.
And for many who get rolled up in excessive gambling — either on sports or in some other realm — it’s not about the money. It’s not about the need for the money. It’s about the addiction to the action, the thrill of the chase.
I interviewed all kinds of folks for that article — from Mary H., a suburban wife and a mother of three kids, to Paul C., a successful businessman — good people who let gambling overwhelm them, to the point where they were persuaded, coerced, into seeking help.
Gambling for a whole lot of people is just a side activity they enjoy, a “hobby,” as Jordan described it. Let’s say it the way it is here. Americans love to gamble. They spend billions and billions every year placing bets as a means of entertainment. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. And they do it responsibly. They should be able to do it responsibly.
A couple of years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited sports betting, leaving it up to state legislatures to decide for their own areas what would be legally permitted in that regard and what wouldn’t. It wasn’t as though the justices were all that interested in creating space for themselves to run out and place bets on their favorite teams, to wager on the Super Bowl or the World Series or the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or to throw a thousand bucks into their NCAA office pool. They focused more on the constitutionality of the feds dictating to the states what should be allowed and what shouldn’t in gambling’s reach and realm.
Prior to that ruling, it had been estimated that annual illegal betting in this country soared past $100 billion. Apparently, legal or otherwise, U.S. citizens enjoy dropping cash on the barrel in games of chance.
Their individual totals on average fly considerably lower to the ground than Jordan’s, whose debts to one golfing partner were alleged by that partner to have climbed to more than a million dollars. Some of the characters with and against whom Jordan was betting were less-than pristine. He claimed he didn’t know about the circles in which some of them ran until much later.
Jordan’s gambling blew past just money, according to Kennedy, a former MTV VJ, who claimed in a book that the basketball star attempted to lure her into betting sexual favors in a game of dice. Jordan has never commented on that claim.
When sports stars have competitiveness problems that spill over into gambling, the teams for and the leagues in which they play get real nervous, as they should. While former NBA commissioner David Stern publicly deflected Jordan’s gambling debts, the more modern NBA, among other leagues, seems to be coming around to the idea of favoring gambling, or at least allowing it among fans.
Athletes, though, who get caught up in it run the risk of allowing temptation to affect their performance, which might then affect their team’s performance, which would then hurt the credibility of an endeavor that relies on that credibility to properly exist. How can fans allow their passions to sink so deeply in their patronage if they believe someone is or someones are throwing games?
Jordan said he bet on himself — in golf outings and card games, etc.
His performances on the court suggested he cared more than anything about winning.
Stern said Jordan’s hiatus from basketball into baseball had nothing to do with any kind of suspension, any kind of punitive action against the former Bulls star.
But players with competitiveness problems seem more apt to allow themselves to be influenced. That’s why boundaries between what happens on the floor, on the field, on the diamond and what happens off of them must remain firm, creating a wall between individual thirst for action and action in the games.
Almost nothing would hurt sports leagues — and sports, in general — more than gambling scandals. That’s why the treatment of figures from Shoeless Joe Jackson to Pete Rose to Tim Donaghy have been as harsh as they’ve been. Perception.
Jordan’s cravings for action might have been, for him, a mere hobby. But that pursuit at least edged toward a zone that could be dangerous for a percentage of the population as a whole — ask Mary H. and Paul C. and their families — but that, for sports, would be devastating.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.