NCPG agility grants in action: Talking Towson research with Keith Whyte

Buildings at Towson University
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It was a major headline for the world of responsible gambling in 2021 when the NFL announced it was launching a responsible gambling awareness program that included a $6.2 million donation to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG).

NCPG agility grants funded by NFL, FanDuel

What also turned heads was NCPG’s decision to take roughly a third of that money and dole it out to someone else. The group did just that, announcing that funding from the NFL, as well as FanDuel, would go to support a new agility grant program, unveiled last January.

The goal of these grants is to support the growth of problem gambling prevention programs through $20,000-$40,000 endowments. While that may not sound like the biggest sum, recipients of these grants are putting this money to use in vital ways already.

Take, for example, Towson University, which used its grant money to integrate problem gambling messaging into existing efforts around drug and alcohol prevention.

“One of the reasons Townsend’s application rose to the top is that there were already counseling centers already. It was already engaged on campus. They’d already done a lot of other health promotion activities around addiction, so their proposal was to integrate gambling addiction into an existing very successful health promotion program,” explained NCPG Executive Director Keith Whyte.

Towson research used in-app notifications to address responsible gambling

What the Maryland-based Towson did was utilize the same technology sports betting does to get its message across. The initiative uses in-app banners suggesting students “PAWS”, which stands for “Plan ahead, Always know your limits, Wait to play again, Stop while you’re ahead.”

Knowing online betting was on the verge of rolling out in Maryland, Towson also incorporated a “Tigers Play Responsibly” campaign into the school’s athletic program. This focus on college athletes was another reason the grant application caught the eye of NCPG.

“The priority audience that they were addressing was the exact priority audience that we know needs to be addressed. Obviously, young college students, but they’re focusing on college student-athletes and college student-athletes from minority backgrounds,” Whyte said. “Towson is not a historically black college, but they have a very large proportion of minority students.”

Finally, the Towson research impressed NCPG because it had measures in place to see what the impact of this messaging was on the student body. So often, the effort stops at putting the message out there, but the Towson Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Prevention Center wanted to measure results and continue to innovate accordingly.

“They came with built-in evaluative tools. They came really thinking about not just how can we deliver this, how do you deliver the message but how are the students receiving it? Is it changing their behavior and how do we know that?”

Problem gambling complicated and difficult to identify

A campus being so eager to incorporate problem gambling initiatives is not always the norm. Oftentimes, campus programs are more focused on issues like drug and alcohol abuse and administrators keep their limited resources focused on that.

“We talk to campus administrators and their perception is that the consequences of alcohol abuse or drug abuse are so much more severe, so much more concrete, so much more damaging, and that gambling is a victimless crime if you will,” Whyte explained. “‘Yeah, people are breaking our policies, but you know, our concern our drunk driving deaths or sexual assault, violence related to drunk driving,’ and I think they have a point. But that doesn’t mean that you should ignore it. It means that you have to mainstream gambling addiction with other stuff and that there are suicides related to gambling problems on campus.”

The hidden nature of gambling also makes it less obvious when people are suffering and it is difficult to comprehend the scope of the problem. While you can see when someone is repeatedly drinking to excess, it is impossible to know how much someone is betting unless they tell you.

“There are few outer physical signs that someone’s gambling, much less than they’re having a gambling problem. We think part of the solution is using all this technology for good…better monitoring and tracking on apps, New Jersey’s initiative to require operators to identify certain markers of harm. There’s a lot more you could do with that. And we will,” Whyte said.

Calvin Ridley the example of who grants are trying to reach

Further complicating the issue is that gambling is often just one of a series of problems a person may be dealing with. Look no further than Calvin Ridley, who was dealing with injury, isolation, depression, and other issues when he chose to place prohibited bets on NFL games. In a heartfelt post on The Players’ Tribune detailing his experience, Ridley also noted that he spent part of his childhood in the foster care system and how the game of football eventually saved his life.

Whyte read Ridley’s story and it resonated strongly with him and with the mission of NCPG. When asked if Ridley is an example of the kinds of people most at-risk for problem gambling given he was a minority student-athlete, Whyte minced no words.

“Literally exactly.”

Ridley may be the example of what can happen without intervention but the research at Towson is the example of how colleges and the gambling industry can start trying to prevent it.

“Trying to prevent more stories like Calvin’s, I think, is the heart of everything we do, and it’s particularly related to these youth agility grants,” Whye said.

So, it may have initially seemed odd that NCPG is giving away money it could use internally. However, after seeing the grants in action, it becomes abundantly clear that the money is going right to the heart of problem gambling issues with a much-needed targeted approach to the populations most at-risk with the expansion of sports betting across the country.