From the tables to the bully pulpit: A former addicts mission to combat problem gambling
- Joined ESPN in 2014
- Journalist covering gambling industry since 2008
On a late afternoon in June 2018, Craig Carton is at a high-limit blackjack table in a casino just outside of Philadelphia.
The high-profile New York sports-talk host is fighting an internal battle between his ego and his soul. He needs to double down but doesn’t have the cash in front of him.
Nine months earlier, Carton had been arrested by federal agents at his home and charged with fraud for his role in a concert ticket resale scheme, some of the proceeds from which he used to pay off gambling debts. He resigned from the No. 1 sports-talk show in New York City, “Boomer & Carton” on Sept. 13, 2017. His dream job was gone, and his freedom was in jeopardy.
Yet, even after spending two weeks at a gambling rehabilitation center, he was back at the blackjack table months later, debating his next move.
Carton knows the correct play for the hand he has just been dealt is to double down, but to do so, he’ll need to race out to the parking lot and get the money he purposely left in his truck as a test of self-control. The advantage play for his life, however, is to step away from gambling altogether. Carton asks the dealer to pause the game and heads to get the money.
An hour later, he has lost it all and failed his own test, but he may have won the war within himself — and that personal victory could help America’s growing betting market tackle one of its most critical challenges.
“At that point, I was willing to admit to myself that I had a problem,” Carton said during a series of recent interviews with ESPN conducted on Zoom. “That really started my journey of being able to tell you I have a problem, and those are two different things. Owning that I have a problem is one thing and then to be able to look another man in his face, eye to eye, and not care what you think of me … honestly, that was the toughest hill for me to climb. Thankfully, I was able to climb it, because a lot of people don’t.”
Carton says he hasn’t gambled since that afternoon blackjack session in June 2018. He was convicted of fraud in the spring of 2019, sentenced to 3.5 years in federal prison and required to pay $4.8 million in restitution to the victims of his crime. He was released from prison in June 2020 and back on the air with WFAN four months later.
Today, he’s as brash as ever behind the microphone on his afternoon show, “Carton and Roberts,” but off air, in his role as the face of sportsbook FanDuel’s efforts to combat problem gambling, he’s humble and contrite. He now has the loudest voice and biggest platform any problem gambler has ever had, a responsibility he takes seriously, and he is concerned for people.
“There will be thousands of more people that now have a gambling problem, because so many more people are betting,” Carton said. “It’s going to be a problem nationwide that I don’t think a lot of states are ready for.”
If you or anyone you know has a gambling problem, please call 1-800-522-4600 for help.
America’s looming problem gambling reckoning
March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and as it and the NCAA tournament wind down, calls from sports bettors to problem gambling hotlines are on the rise.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have legal betting markets, with the bulk of the wagering taking place online. Billions of dollars are flowing from bettors to bookmakers every month, with leagues, colleges, media outlets and state governments each receiving their cut. During a nine-day stretch in January, bettors put more than $600 million in play with online sportsbooks in New York. Experts believe a reckoning is coming, an inevitable tsunami of gambling addiction, and America isn’t prepared.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, sports bettors are at least twice as likely to develop a gambling disorder compared to gamblers in general, especially when playing online. Studies have shown that problem gamblers also are more likely to attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts than other types of addicts. Carton, who used to bet sports regularly, considered jumping off a ski lift to end his life when things were spiraling out of control, something he revealed in an HBO documentary about his collapse. A friend talked him off the ledge that day, and Carton is determined to help others before they get to that point.
“Gambling addiction is the only addiction that I know of where we use the word degenerate to describe us,” Carton said. “There’s a great amount of shame that comes with that.”
Carton hopes the second chance he has been given shows other gambling addicts that life goes on. After all, his downward spiral played out on air while he was the co-host of No. 1 sports-talk show in New York City, “Boomer & Carton.” During a decade-long run on the show, Carton talked openly about his blackjack prowess with his co-host, ex-NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason. Gambling and sports picks were a regular part of the show. But when news broke of Carton’s arrest in September 2017, most everyone at the station was caught off guard.
“What I always remind people of is that Craig is a great performer,” Chris Oliviero, senior vice president of marketing for WFAN, said. “When the light went on at 6 o’clock every morning, no matter what was going on, the craziness in his personal life, he hid it. Lights went on, he started dancing.”
Oliviero made the decision to bring Carton back to WFAN after his imprisonment. He visited and communicated with Carton regularly while he was locked up in a minimum-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and found his longtime friend to be contrite and accepting of his responsibility for his crime. Still, while Oliviero believed Carton deserved a second chance, he also knew there would be backlash, and there was.
“Some of the negative reaction was because his on-air persona is polarizing, and that’s also what makes him successful,” Oliviero said. “People who might just know the on-air persona might say that he doesn’t deserve a second chance. But, again, that’s based on his on-air persona. We know the truth.”
Oliviero says Carton still brings the “high-and-tight fastball” during the afternoon show but also tends to be more thoughtful on stories where an athlete or public figure is accused of something where an addiction could be involved. Carton also no longer participates in segments featuring sports picks, but he knows that gambling remains a big part of any sports-talk show.
“What’s weird about it is that I’m a huge proponent of this proliferation of legalization of gambling,” Carton said. “I think it’s great that we’re taking it from the back alley and have made it mainstream. I think the more mainstream it is, the easier it becomes over time to talk about it. I think ultimately that will be a really good thing.”
Oliviero says the real-life Carton, not his alter-ego, can be heard on his Saturday morning show, “Hi, my name is Craig,” which features guests discussing their struggles with a gambling in a raw format. Carton says the Saturday show is in part him making good on a promise to a group of problem gamblers he met during a two-week stay at Algamus Gambling Recovery Center in Arizona.
“Craig didn’t have to do that weekend show. He wasn’t forced to do that weekend show,” Oliviero said. “Some people think he was somehow forced to do that. No, he wasn’t. He wanted to do it, and we wanted to do it. And the response we’ve gotten in phone calls, emails and letters from real people who need help has been eye opening, no doubt, but it has also fueled us to do it more.”
If you or anyone you know is depressed or having suicidal thoughts, please seek help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Tackling the issue of the ‘hidden addiction’
On Sept. 23, 2021, Carton was named as an ambassador for FanDuel’s responsible gambling initiatives. He works directly with the sportsbook to help identify warning signs and speaks to employees about how dangerous problem gambling can be for customers and their business itself. It’s part of what FanDuel calls an “inside-out” approach to tackling problem gambling on its platform.
Carton is also producing content aimed at reaching problem gamblers that began appearing on FanDuel platforms in March. Ultimately, his goal, he says, is to humanize the addict. He knows there’s a long way to go.
“It’s the school teacher, the little league coach, the mail man, the sales guy … we don’t smell a certain way; we don’t look a certain way, and that’s why it’s referred to as the hidden addiction,” Carton said.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, funding for problem gambling services is dwarfed by the amounts dedicated to drug and alcohol addiction. Some states, including ones that have recently legalized sports betting, do not dedicate any tax revenue to problem gambling services.
Adam Warrington spent more than seven years working in the corporate social responsibility department of Anheuser-Busch. He’s now in a similar role with FanDuel as the sportsbook’s vice president of responsible gambling. He joined FanDuel shortly after Carton signed on as an ambassador for the company’s responsible gambling efforts.
Like Carton, Warrington believes one of the biggest challenges the industry faces with problem gambling is erasing the negative stigma that still exists. He sees some similarities between the alcohol industry’s efforts to normalize designated drivers and what is needed in the gambling industry when it comes to tackling addiction. He said it took years to destigmatize the use of designated drivers, but he hopes modern technology and Carton can speed up the process with humanizing problem gamblers.
“That would lead to destigmatizing those who have a problem with gambling, like other addictions,” Warrington added.
Taking that first step, the hardest step
It has been nearly four years since Carton’s last blackjack session. The 51-year-old remembers the shame and anger he felt when he got up from the table and walked out to the blue Ford Raptor that Esiason had given him as a gift to go retrieve the money he left behind as a test of his self-control.
“I’ve beaten myself up a lot about the bad decisions I’ve made,” Carton said. “And I’ve never wanted to use, for what I viewed for a long time as a cop out, ‘Well, it wasn’t my fault, it’s an addiction.’
“I think it can be both at the same time,” he added. “Clearly, my brain is wired in a manner that I can’t gamble responsibly. So I own that now, and I didn’t own that at the very beginning of the whole process, and there’s an ego aspect to that for sure.”
Carton says he borrowed more than $30 million to gamble. At the peak of his addiction, he was playing upwards of $20,000 a hand. He was a good card player, too. He knew the math behind the most advantageous decisions for every situation. Yet, he’d still endure wild swings, sometimes winning more than a million dollars only to lose it all back and more before he left the casino. His job was about the only thing that could get him to leave the table.
“If you want to see a gambling problem looks like, I played blackjack for nine minutes. Nine minutes,” Carton explained. ” At 3:57 in the morning, I sat down. I walked out at 4:06. It was a nine-minute sitdown and I won $325,000 in nine minutes and walked out the door. I only left the table because I had to go to work. I look back at those stories, not to glorify it, because it’s ugly, disgusting and dirty, but it’s real.”
In many ways, Carton’s downfall, the second chance he has been given and the skepticism of his and the gambling industry’s sincerity are reflective of the challenge the American betting market faces with problem gambling.
It’s hard for those who are turned off by Carton’s brash, flame-throwing on-air persona to believe he is remorseful and thoughtful about tackling problem gambling, just like it can be difficult for the general public to believe bookmaking businesses, which make their money from consumer losses, are serious about preventing people from betting more than they should. But some see value in bringing a fresh voice like Carton’s into the problem gambling space.
“I’ve long called for more innovation in the space, and I think Craig is the perfect person to bring that in the space,” Jamie Salsburg, a brand strategist and former problem gambler, said. “I think the thing I’m most excited about is his voice. He’s got a unique voice. He’s going to be able to say things, do things that none of us have ever done before. Ultimately, the typical responsible gambling narrative and messaging has been around for 40 years and hasn’t evolved; it hasn’t changed. It’s time.”
Carton says he doesn’t feel pressure knowing that he has the loudest voice and biggest platform any problem gambler has ever had, but he does feel obligated to do what he can to help prevent people from making the same mistakes he did.
“There’s also shame involved in it, which is why it’s so hard for so many problem gamblers to say they have a problem,” Carton said. “That’s the first step, and it is the hardest.”
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