At his lowest point, his life utterly ruined by problem gambling, Mark Potter (above) found himself sitting on a train station bridge moments away from jumping.
A little more than 10 years after receiving treatment, the former professional rugby player is hoping his harrowing personal story of problem gambling — fueled by the same competitive nature he tapped into to become an elite athlete — will help college athletes avoid his mistakes.
Potter has worked for UK-based “gambling harm minimization” company EPIC Risk Management for eight years. He is the Head of Delivery for EPIC, a group contracted by the NCAA to provide problem gambling education to schools across the nation.
In the last year, EPIC has provided gambling education at six Illinois schools:
- University of Illinois
- Roosevelt University
- University of Illinois-Springfield
- Eastern Illinois University
- DePaul University
- Chicago State University
“We’ve probably seen upwards of 1,000 student-athletes, probably 1,200 [in Illinois],” Potter told PlayIllinois. “Out of probably 60 schools that we did last year [across the US] 10% of them were in Illinois.”
And, EPIC has Northern Illinois University booked for a session this fall.
When Potter speaks at schools about responsible gambling, a major part of the presentation is his personal story.
Being an elite athlete accelerated Potter’s downward spiral into problem gambling
Potter’s rugby career took off early. Soon, he was playing for a first grade team in the UK. It wasn’t long before he received a contract extension.
Then, a serious injury put him on the sidelines for the better part of the year. Potter suffered a broken C4 bone in his neck, dislocated his shoulder and had a broken collarbone.
“I didn’t deal with it very well,” Potter said of the injuries. “It left me a lot of time. It left me with a void to fill.”
He filled that hole with gambling. It was only low-level bets at first to pass the time. But about six months after he started gambling, he had a huge score “that escalated the excitement level, the buzz, the adrenaline.” He increased his bets, then the money ran out and he found it difficult to go back to a lower level of gambling.
“It started impacting my sport and my rehab. I was skipping hospital appointments, leaving practice early because of the excitement level and then credit came and you get into debt and then you don’t like the feeling of that and you carry on. Ultimately, after five years in the UK in sport I left with $700 to my name and $82,000 worth of debt.”
He moved to Ireland to start a family and a new career. But soon he started gambling again. He also started hiding his problem.
“Literally, I started paying postmen not to put mail through my door and changing my mobile phone number and then borrowing some money from the owner of my [rugby] club. That led to me stealing money from him and going to court and nearly going to prison… In the 12 months leading up to my arrest, I gambled over $1.6 million. I lost nearly $200,000 and I was only earning $85,000.
“I was literally prepared to commit crimes based on my situation to get myself out of debt, to hide my behaviors from people,” Potter said. “The reality is, if somebody would have approached me to fix elements of my game, I’m almost certain I would have done it because I was so desperate for the money.”
The sportsbooks fueled his problem with free bets
In the year he was gambling heavily in Ireland, Potter said VIP managers at the sportsbooks he used gave him $160,000 in free bets, “because I was a great customer. They knew it was coming straight back.”
Even a criminal record couldn’t make Potter stop gambling. He moved back to the UK with his family, but the change of scenery didn’t help.
“I couldn’t sit in peace in my own company for two minutes if I ever had access to money,” Potter said. “So, I tried to remove the access and then my wife went away. After begging her for another chance, I ended up selling items from our house, including her engagement ring. That was the thing that tipped me over the edge.”
Help came from a clinic started by a fellow athlete
“After sitting on this train station bridge trying to psych myself up to jump off it, I ended up going to Sporting Chance Clinic, which is set up for athletes with addictions in the UK. It was started by Tony Adams, a very famous soccer player with Arsenal and England captain. He had his issues with alcoholism. I went there for five weeks and I think that’s why this is so important that we have those conversations with athletes.”
Potter said it’s not a coincidence his only successful year as a rugby player was his first one. That was the year before he was injured and started gambling.
“You start making poor decisions. And then you don’t have money to eat properly. And then you stay up until 4 a.m. playing poker and things you don’t even enjoy. Therefore, you’re going into practice tired. And then I started taking sleeping pills and it went from there. The next minute, your career’s over and you’ve made lots of mistakes and are full of regret.”
Counseling was effective in Potter’s case because he said he learned to understand the reasons why gambled. He is hoping the athletes can learn from him because some of the drivers will be the same.
Why elite athletes are more susceptible to problem gambling
Potter said most elite athletes can relate to his experience with competitiveness.
“Sport is about winning and losing,” he said. “It’s ultimately about being successful or unsuccessful. And if you’re five years old, playing football or basketball in the driveway with your brother or sister, winning is great and losing sucks. That’s the reality of life,” he said.
“Competitive drivers are good drivers to have in sport. To get to an elite level, a D1 level or professional level, you have to have them otherwise you wouldn’t be in that room. The problem I had was I was like that all the time. And when I started to gamble, I loved winning and I hated losing and it very much filled the void especially through periods of long-term injury of what I wasn’t getting from sport.
“And let’s be honest, when I started to win, I loved it. And when I lost, I hated it. I started to get into debt and chase my losses because of those competitive drivers and who I was as an athlete. I never enjoyed the feeling of being a loser. For me, there was never a time that I could put my hands up and say ‘I’m not really good at this. I need to stop.’ My answer was, ‘I need to get better at this and become more successful.’ So you carry on and then it starts to get worse. And then you’re chasing losses using credit, stealing funds and it just goes from there.
“There’s also a level of arrogance by being involved in sport, thinking you know everything there is to know about sport and it is then tempting to try to use that information to try and win at sports wagering… As soon as you win money, you’re excited by it and you want to do it again to replicate the buzz. So it either replicates the buzz and adrenaline that you’re not getting from sport or it felt good to win that money initially and then you keep going at it. The competitive drivers want you to keep going again and again and again. And my gut tells me that plays a big part in it, especially for athletes, both men and women.”
What EPIC teaches college athletes about gambling
Most of EPIC’s college education program is delivered through in-person sessions.
Potter said topics include:
- Athlete vulnerability to problem gambling in the US.
- How and why athletes are more likely to struggle with harmful gambling than the general population.
- Athletes are tested for drugs and alcohol, but there’s no test for gambling and it is easy to hide.
- Sports betting integrity, and the increased risk based on the proliferation of sports betting and growth of in-game sports markets.
- The additional impacts of legal wagering, including online abuse of athletes from losing sports bettors and how that can impact your mental health and performance on the field. “I’ve been on both sides of that,” Potter said, “having been the athlete who has been abused online over losses because I made a mistake during the game, but I’ve also been the problem gambler that has blamed everybody else put themselves for those losses.”
- The gambling spectrum that goes from not wanting to part with $1 to committing crimes to fund your gambling debts.
- The crossover between vulnerable gambling harm personally and the increased likelihood to then become involved in sports betting integrity issues such as match-fixing.
EPIC’s NCAA partnership has grown rapidly in two years
In year one, EPIC provided problem gambling education to 60 post-secondary institutions. This year, the commitment expanded first to 75 schools and now 80.
“The NCAA said to us if you get a 25% comeback rate from the QR codes [shown at the end of the session] and you get a 70% satisfaction rate we will be happy with that,” Potter said. “We’re over 90%. So out of 18,000, 20,000 college athletes, the significant majority of them are getting a lot out of it. And they’re learning a lot from it.
“Everything’s going great and I think it’s very much something that we will continue to do. The demand for it now has never been higher. We could have done 200 colleges this year, if we had the capacity.
“The idea is that we provide enough information for those guys and girls to better understand how to manage themselves away from [gambling] and, ideally, not do it.
“I think a lot of athletics, in general, are very good at trying to prepare people for success. We’re not very good at trying to prepare people for things that go wrong. And when they do, it’s really hard to deal with it.
“I found that I wasn’t prepared. I couldn’t deal with adversity. So when these things start to happen, and you’re not used to that, or you’re not prepared for that, then it’s really difficult to get yourself away from that.
“Equally, being an athlete and being involved in sports is a very macho, ego-driven environment. When your relationship starts to change, you start to have problems. It then becomes really difficult to say, ‘I need some help’ because you don’t want to come across as weak. You don’t want your teammates ribbing you. You don’t want it to impact your selection or your contracts. So there’s always a reason not to talk about it and not to explore what it means to you and I did that.”
What Potter would tell his own children about gambling
Asked what he would tell his own children about gambling when they are old enough, Potter said it is a difficult conversation. Children are especially prone to do the opposite of what their parents tell them and “prohibition very rarely works.”
He said he will tell them: “People are free to make their own choices. [But] we want to make sure you are making those choices with great information, and you are understanding how and why this may become a problem for either you or one of your teammates or one of your family or friends. To be able to understand more about it will put you on a much better footing than if you don’t.
“That’s what I will say to my kids. I’ll say, ‘Look, fellas, this is what happened to me. This is why I think it happened to me. If you ever want to do that, you can talk to me about it.’ And we will hopefully have that chat and we’ll make some choices. But simply saying, ‘You can’t do something’ very rarely works. It’s more of a, ‘Here are the risks. Look after yourself, please, because this can go very wrong very quickly if you don’t understand why you do it, what your motivations are.’
“So, it’s more around helping them understand what that means and helping them understand what betting means to them. If anything, I’m hoping that they can then make some good choices based on good information and understanding of a topic that isn’t very easy to understand.”
Where in Illinois you can get help for problem gambling
PlayIllinois maintains a responsible gambling page here.
The most prominent organization is the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling (ICPG).
You can call 833-937-4274 or email [email protected] for information about their services. They can connect you with a counselor local to you, for example. The ICPG isn’t the only organization available for people with compulsive gambling issues in IL, however.
The National Problem Gambling Helpline is another great resource.
The number to call is 800-GAMBLER (800-426-2537). The organization that operates that hotline is the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG). You can text the NCPG at 800GAM. The NCPG also offers an online chat for information about treatment. You can choose to remain anonymous when inquiring about services. All of these resources are free.
Gamblers Anonymous is a support group for people who deal with gambling problems of their own. In Illinois, call 855-2CALLGA (855-222-5542).
Legal gambling tax dollars also go to fund programs for people with compulsive gambling issues. All licensed gaming companies in Illinois contribute to and participate in these programs.
Free help for people with gambling problems in IL
The Illinois Department of Human Services has a list of approved treatment providers throughout the state. The same state department maintains a website of resources for Illinoisans concerned with the issue.
In 2018, the state created a program specifically for those who struggle with abusing video lottery terminals (VLTs).
The Problem Gambling Registry sends enrollees regular emails providing information on problem gambling.
They contain links to problem gambling prevention and treatment resources available in Illinois. You can enroll in that registry online for free. You can cancel your enrollment at any time as well.
A more thorough step to safeguard for people with gambling issues is self-exclusion.