Opinion: Obama, Shaq Erred Making Light Of Charles Barkley’s Serious Gambling Problem

The former president needled the NBA Hall of Famer over the weekend regarding his addiction to betting
Charles Barkley

Problem gambling is an addiction that isn’t taken quite as seriously in our society as substance abuse problems, and it’s sometimes easy to see why that’s the case. One former U.S. president apparently doesn’t realize to the full extent how serious the addiction can be.

In a three-way video chat among Shaquille O’Neal, Barack Obama, and Charles Barkley on Sunday discussing the important topic of COVID-19 vaccinations, the latter’s gambling habit came up.

Obama and Shaq were having some laughs about all of Shaq’s business side hustles, when Shaq said: “I don’t have as much money as the great Charles Barkley, but I’m good.”

In response, Obama made a strange comment about Barkley’s gambling, saying, “That’s ’cause you don’t go to Vegas as often as he does.” (Side note: Obama has a history of criticizing Las Vegas.)

It’s an interesting comment from the former president because Barkley has admitted mind-boggling losses in Sin City, but we could call it a good-natured needle.

Shaq then asked Barkley how it feels “that the president knows that you’re an avid gambler in Vegas?”

“It’s all over TV. I can’t hide it,” Barkley replied.

“Chuck is Chuck, and that’s what we love about him,” Obama followed up, implying there’s not much anyone can do about Barkley’s love for gambling. Below is the video:

Barkley’s gambling problem over the years

NBA great Barkley is a longtime high-stakes gambler — and he’s also admitted he’s had (still has?) a very serious problem with compulsive play.

“Do I have a gambling problem?” Barkley said back in 2006. “Yeah, I do have a problem, but I don’t consider it a problem because I can afford to gamble. It’s just a stupid habit that I’ve got to get under control, because it’s just not a good thing to be broke after all these years.”

At the time, Barkley said he was going to stop betting $20,000 a hand at table games, dropping it to $1,000 a hand. At the apparent height of his gambling, Barkley lost $2.5 million in just a handful of hours, telling the Associated Press: “I didn’t kill myself when I lost $2.5 million. I like to gamble and I’m not going to quit.”

Later, in 2008, Barkley was able to avoid criminal charges related to a gambling debt in Las Vegas by agreeing to pay four $100,000 markers he used for sports betting. It’s hard to find stronger evidence of a person’s problem gambling than potentially going to jail over the habit.

Years later, Barkley said in a highly problematic interview with Graham Bensinger that he had lost $1 million on as many as 20 separate occasions. He’s never revealed his total losses gambling.

It’s common for people who have gambling problems to understate or under-represent their losses.

Barkley revealed in that interview he had “quit for like two years” and that at one point he was given the terrible advice by friends that he didn’t actually have a gambling problem, rather that he was “just an idiot.” Barkley had (still has?) a gambling problem.

Problem gambling has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. Barkley’s a smart person.

Barkley claims to have cut back to some extent, but revealed last year in an interview with Dan Patrick that he lost $100,000 betting on a recent Super Bowl.

The problem with the exchange

On the surface, the video chat by Barkley, O’Neal, and Obama was some friendly banter with the main purpose of the video being to talk about COVID-19 vaccinations. But what does it mean for problem gambling?

Presently there’s an online gambling boom in the U.S., one that is being led by sportsbooks, but with some states also allowing online casinos. There has been and will continue to be increased addiction associated with the expansion of state-sponsored gambling to smartphones and computers.

Barkley is a gambling cautionary tale, but one that is unfortunately obscured by the fact that he’s wealthy. Even after his NBA career ended, he has found plenty of opportunities to continue making a substantial income. Problem gambling won’t impact someone like Barkley quite the same as the average person.

But that’s how problem gambling can take root, by a misconception of one’s ability to afford the losses. Clearly at one point Barkley thought he could afford to lose and lose, and one day he realized he couldn’t.

One of the key tenets of the responsible gambling public awareness campaign by the U.S. casino industry amid the online sports betting boom is to set a limit and stick to it. It appears that after all these years Barkley has figured out a sustainable limit for his own gambling, but he went through fire to get there. Not everyone can withstand the challenges Barkley overcame and still be able to have a relationship with betting. Many people have to quit entirely, turning to total abstinence.

Shaq referring to Barkley as an “avid” bettor is a bit unfortunate considering Barkley’s past.

At the end of the day, this short exchange about Barkley’s gambling on a video about the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations can’t be cited as significantly bolstering the stigma of problem gambling, but it’s a good example of how more work needs to be done to change public perception of the addiction.

Problem gambling might be somewhat of a laughing matter to Barkley, but to many others, it’s not.

Photo by Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports


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