Athletes and gambling: A longtime love affair

Updated: May 5, 2006, 11:38 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

So here's your recap in the latest version of Pro Gamblers Gone Wild:

   1.) John Daly, still upright and, apparently, solvent;

   2.) Charles Barkley, losing money and almost proud of it; and

   3.) Even if I tell you all about it, it's still none of your business.

John Daly
Gerry Broome/AP PhotoJohn Daly's gambling losses may not be quite $60 million. But they're substantial.

Also, this: It's just about the oldest story ever told.

Oh, sure, scale matters. There's something inherently dramatic about Daly claiming to have lost $50 million to $60 million over the years via gambling, even if Daly's numbers are grotesquely inflated and -- by his own admission -- probably incomplete. It's still a great story.

It's a great story even if, as Barkley suggests (and Daly's amended comments seem to confirm), Daly's actual gambling-related losses over the years are closer to, say, $20 million than $60 mil. As Barkley points out, in order to have sustained $60 million in gambling losses and still be financially viable, Daly would've had to have earned something like $200 million pre-tax, which he most certainly did not. (Daly says he didn't mention his gambling winnings, only his losses. OK, then.)

Still, Daly's claims in his autobiography just dazzle. They're so compelling. They tell the story of an elite level golfer with an addictive personality who cannot control his impulse to wager on something or other most of the time. Based upon the tale and the quality with which it's told, he might even get people to thinking he's unique.

You know what he is? One of the boys, is what.

After that, it's strictly about the numbers.

A pro athlete who gambles -- on cards, games, chance, whatever -- is a definition, not an oxymoron. Michael Jordan. Phil Mickelson. Barkley, who himself told ESPN he has probably punted $10 million over the years by, essentially, being a lousy gambler (and who isn't?).

The old guys gambled. The new guys gamble. They went and they go all over the place in search of that competitive high. Some of them take the relative low road, the Sam Sneads of the world jonesing on golf Nassaus with their buddies and the occasional country-club sucker. Some go to the harsh extremes, the Pete Roses of the world who find nothing that can give them a game-time type buzz -- but that tracking your wager at least comes somewhere close.

Not every athlete is a compulsive gambler, of course. The overwhelming majority of guys never do lose perspective. Most of them love a good game, and a decent bet makes it a little bit more fun -- gives it a little juice -- and that's that.

Is the potential there for a little to become a lot? By mortal standards, you bet. And that's the problem with stuff like this: Trying to figure out what makes Jordan or Barkley hurt financially is like trying to gauge a lineman's pain threshold. Generally, you don't know until you know.

"I understand that's a lot of money, but it is my money. Nobody has the right to tell me what to do with my money."
Charles Barkley

Barkley's perspective here is invaluable, in part because it's so clear that, deep down, he genuinely doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks of his gambling. He only spoke up about Daly's story because he was asked to, and he didn't have the slightest problem with acknowledging his own tendency to play.

"I understand that's a lot of money," Barkley told TNT of his estimate of $10 million in losses, "but it is my money. Nobody has the right to tell me what to do with my money."

In other words, Barkley has it to lose. Both he and Daly freely admit that their losses almost always come in the casinos, so it's not like they're being trailed around by Louie the Fish trying to collect on a debt.

For that matter, Daly and Barkley sound alike on the subject of their need to gamble. They so regard it as a part of their composition as an athlete (current or former) and gamesman that they resist even token efforts to bring their habits to heel.

Daly noted that PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem had met with him and asked him to seek counseling for his gambling, the way Daly once did for his drinking habit. But when someone wanted to know if Daly would actually do it, the golfer replied, "I'm not really into that."

And here's Barkley, asked by TNT host Ernie Johnson if his gambling was a problem: "It's not a problem. If you're a drug addict or an alcoholic, those are problems. I gamble for too much money. As long as I can continue to do it, I don't think it's a problem."

Daly says his gambling could ruin him if he doesn't get it under control. Based upon his personal history, you'd probably lay 2-to-1 on the side of ruination. It would be a horrible waste, of course. What it wouldn't be, historically speaking, is breaking news.

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN's "Cold Pizza." Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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