By now, many have seen Phil Mickelson’s lengthy post on Twitter.com (now known as X), speaking about his experience with gambling addiction.
In the post, and against the backdrop of a new NFL season, Mickelson acknowledged that for most people, a few bets will only add enjoyment to their fandom. For Mickelson, however, that wasn’t the case.
Crossing the line from moderation to addiction, he said, “isn’t any fun at all.” For that reason, he now abstains from betting.
According to the post, after many years of therapy and his wife’s help, he is, once again, “back on track.”
Mickelson’s apparent success is remarkable news.
But, for me, the note foreshadows where the conservation around gambling addiction could go—and I’m encouraged by the nuance Mickelson injects into the conversation.
Gambling Isn’t the Enemy, Problem Gambling Is
When dealing with a gambling issue, it’s not uncommon for those affected to develop an anti-gambling bias. That’s especially true for many gamblers in recovery.
Now, I would never judge how someone deals with their addiction. However, evidence shows that only a small percentage of gamblers develop a problem overall.
Estimates of problem gambling rates around the world range between 1% and 6%, depending on both the population and the study methodology.
The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) estimates that, in the US, about 1% of US adults (2 million) experience severe gambling problems. Another 4-6 million (2-3%) face mild or moderate gambling harm.
Still, regardless of the low prevalence, things quickly go wrong when gambling becomes a compulsion. If you’re experiencing it first or secondhand, rarity is likely not much of a salve.
That’s why gambling regulation is so important.
Whether we regulate it or not, people will gamble. The only difference is when we control it, we get to set and enforce standards, reap tax benefits, and better support those who experience gambling harms.
And that brings me back to Mickelson’s post. It was refreshing to see him acknowledge that while gambling became a problem for him, it’s entertainment for many.
The key, he said in the post, is fun and moderation.
Most of you will enjoy this football season with moderation while having lots of fun and entertainment. The fantasy leagues will provide banter amongst friends, and money won or lost betting won’t affect you.
Problem Gambling is More Than Just Money Trouble
Much of the time, when we think about gambling harm, we think about financial hardship.
While it’s true problem gambling is often accompanied by financial strife, for some, the negative consequences are less about monetary loss and more about how the addiction affects relationships and quality of life. For others, it’s a combination of many threads.
In Mickelson’s case, money was never the issue. Financial security, he said, was never at risk despite the scale of his gambling.
Mickelson’s former betting partner and infamous sports gambler, Billy Walters, discussed the pro golfer’s betting in his recent autobiography. According to Walters, Mickelson wagered over a billion dollars and lost $100 million on sports betting over the course of three decades.
For comparison, all of New York—population 20 million—doesn’t always bet that much in a single month. This July, New York bettors wagered a total of $967 million at legal sportsbooks, though they’ve crossed the $1 billion mark before.
Meanwhile, the all-time total handle for regulated sports betting in Arkansas is $486 million, less than half of what Walters says Mickelson bet in his life.
Relationships May Suffer from Disengagement
While Mickelson hasn’t confirmed Walters’ estimates, he hasn’t panned them either.
In August, he did make a statement online, clarifying he never bet on the Ryder Cup.
That correction aside, Mickelson has continued to take responsibility for his gambling problem.
I never bet on the Ryder Cup. While it is well known that I always enjoy a friendly wager on the course, I would never undermine the integrity of the game.
I have also been very open about my gambling addiction. I have previously conveyed my remorse, took responsibility, have gotten help, have been fully committed to therapy that has positively impacted me, and I feel good about where I am now.
Despite the lack of financial stress, Mickelson now recognizes the harm his compulsion took on his relationships.
“I was so distracted I wasn’t able to be present with the ones I love,” he said.
The lack of presence, he added, was intensely hurtful.
The more we recognize the different kinds of harm possible, the more we legitimize people’s varied experiences.
“You’re here, but you’re not with us” is something I’ve been told often throughout my addiction. It affected those I care about in ways I wasn’t aware [of] or could fully understand.
It’s like a hurricane is going on outside, and I’m isolated in a shelter, oblivious to what was happening. When I came out, there was so much damage to clean up that I just wanted to go back inside and not deal with it.
Support is Key to Successful Recovery
While he may have wanted to crawl away again, he didn’t.
In his post, Mickelson acknowledged the importance of his support system in allowing him to face his problems. Vital for him was therapy and his wife, Amy’s commitment.
He hoped others dealing with gambling harm would have similar support.
I couldn’t have gotten through this without her. I’m so grateful for her strength in helping us get through the many challenges I’ve created for us. Because of her love, support, and commitment, I’m back on track to being the person I want to be.
It’s necessary to recognize the benefits of solid support at the system and community level so we can better help those struggling to succeed.
There is Life on the Other Side
Wrapping up, Mickelson ended on an upbeat note.
Getting to where he is now was undoubtedly a challenge. But he confirmed the effort paid off, and peace is possible on the other side.
After many years of receiving professional help, not gambling, and being in recovery from my addictions, I’m now able to sit still, be present in the moment, and live each day with an inner calm and peace.
Lastly, he signed off with advice that could apply to more than just gambling, but every gambler should heed.
This football season and beyond, enjoy yourself with moderation so it doesn’t detract from your ability to be present. In my experience, the moments with the ones you love will be far more remembered than any bet you win or fantasy league triumph.