A boom in legal online sports betting is fueling a rise in gambling addiction on Long Island, particularly among young men, experts say. NewsdayTV's Jamie Stuart reports.

Gambling nearly destroyed Joe Ruscillo’s life. By the time he was 20, he says, he owed bookies at least $100,000.

The Malverne native was a star in high school — starting quarterback of the varsity football team at Valley Stream North High School his junior and senior years a decade ago, and a member of the varsity basketball and baseball teams.

His SAT scores were good enough to have SUNY Maritime College recruit him to play football, he said.

But Ruscillo’s downfall began when he discovered gambling. It started at 16 with small bets placed with bookies on games in just about every sport — tennis was a favorite. The wagers, made illegally, quickly escalated into the thousands.

Now 26, Ruscillo said he hit rock bottom last year with the advent of legalized online sports betting in New York State. Over the past decade, he figures he wagered between $2 million and $3 million — and lost between $200,000 and $300,000 — before he began pulling his life back together with the help of his family and girlfriend.

“Your first bet was $20 at 16, then it turns into 50, then it turns into 100. And you lose a couple bets in a row and you get yourself in a hole and things just happen,” he said.

“All of a sudden you’re in thousands of dollars of debt to local bookies that you can’t pay back. You’re in debt with your friends that you can’t pay back,” he said. “It’s a dangerous road.”

I was already addicted and then it made it a lot easier to get a bank account, put some money in it, and the deposit is right there in two seconds.

He owed so much, bookies put him on payment plans.

As the debts mounted, he nearly lost his friends and family. He leaned on them for loans. When he didn’t pay them back, tensions grew.

More than once his parents banished him from their home, forcing him to move in with his grandparents. He often did not have enough money to buy food or gas.

“He’s a great kid with a bad problem,” said his mother, Jennifer Ruscillo.

Besides the loans, he gambled with money from his jobs working in sanitation, his family’s car glass business and waiting tables.

“The hard-earned money that you made that week you can lose in literally a minute,” he said. “It’s scary.”

His mother said she has taken him to everyone she could think of to get help — doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, Gamblers Anonymous meetings — but none were able to cure him.

'Made it a lot easier'

The beginning of legalized online sports betting in January 2022 in New York sent him over the edge, Joe Ruscillo said.

“I was already addicted and then it made it a lot easier to get a bank account, put some money in it, and the deposit is right there in two seconds,” he said.

Ruscillo said the ubiquitous ads — especially on iPhones — made it almost impossible for him to resist.

“Me, knowing so much about it, even at the time knowing how bad it is and knowing how detrimental it is to your life, they still got me,” he said of the ads.

He figures he lost between $40,000 and $50,000 within the first two months of online sports betting becoming legal in New York.

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His mother said she became terrified when a sports game would appear on the TV at their home.

“I cringe when sports come on,” she said. “It’s not the love of sports anymore. It’s, ‘Oh my God, is he going to place a bet? How much are we going to lose this time?’”

The online sports betting made Joe Ruscillo realize he could not go on this way. He came clean to his family and girlfriend, and said he needed more help. They came up with a radical solution: He threw away his iPhone and replaced it with an old-fashioned flip phone — one he can’t place bets on.

He also hands over every paycheck to his mother so he doesn’t have access to money to gamble.

The strategy is working. He has paid off almost all his debts, and is saving money in the bank. He and his girlfriend are looking to buy a house or a condo.

Jennifer Ruscillo, the mother of Joe Ruscillo, cringes when sports...

Jennifer Ruscillo, the mother of Joe Ruscillo, cringes when sports come on. “It’s not the love of sports anymore. It’s, ‘Oh my God, is he going to place a bet? How much are we going to lose this time?’” she said. Credit: Morgan Campbell

“I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of money saved. I don’t gamble. And all my friends who are my real friends are still around.”

His advice to young people is to stay away from gambling.

“You go to the Gamblers Anonymous and there are 60-, 70-year-old men in there that are still battling the addiction today, and they did not even have the apps,” he said. “If it was addictive back then, it’s even more addictive now.”

His mother is even more severe in her warnings. Gambling, she said, “should be banned. It should not even exist.”

With Jamie Stuart

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