The decades-long saga of onetime Ohio sports hero Art Schlichter’s out-of-control gambling problem added another sad chapter this year when Schlichter was arrested for felony cocaine possession.
Schlichter’s June arrest came almost exactly one year after he was released from prison for, among other things, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a ticket-selling scheme. Police say they found Schlichter after he had overdosed on cocaine in a Hilliard, Ohio hotel room.
Though his most recent arrest was for drugs, Schlichter’s primary addiction is gambling. The majority of his many run-ins with the law have been for swindling money to support his main habit.
Schlichter was a star quarterback at Ohio State University in the late ’70s/early ’80s and was the top quarterback chosen in the 1982 NFL draft, where he was picked fourth overall by the Baltimore Colts. But Schlichter’s gambling problems completely derailed his professional career, leading to his inclusion near the top of almost any list of the biggest NFL draft busts of all time.
As the Ohio sports betting launch approaches on Jan. 1, 2023, Schlichter’s sad tale offers lessons for those who may be teetering on the edge of — or knee-deep in the middle of — a life-destroying gambling problem. His deceptive, compulsive behavior also spotlights warning signs for those with potential problem gamblers in their lives.
Gambling life started at the horse track
A central Ohio native, Schlichter’s gambling life began when he was in high school. In his 2009 autobiography, “Busted: The Rise and Fall of Art Schlichter,” he recalled losing his “gambling virginity” at Scioto Downs, a harness racing track near Columbus, Ohio. Schlichter said that his first bet was on a “fixed” race that a friend had the inside track on. Schlichter wrote about the thrill of seeing his risky trifecta bet win, but he says he was too scared to cash his ticket out of fear of getting caught.
He continued to bet on races, though. In his senior year, he reportedly bet $20 on a longshot winner that resulted in a $150 payout. Schlichter had gotten a taste of the “rush” of winning against the odds.
Schlichter remained a regular at Scioto Downs, even after he became a celebrity in the area thanks to his role as starting quarterback for Ohio State. Schlichter spent so much time at Scioto Downs that, according to a 1983 New York Times story, he was on the radar of a few different local law enforcement agencies and OSU eventually investigated him.
None of the investigations resulted in any actions due to a lack of evidence. But Schlichter’s OSU teammate Calvin Murray told Columbus Monthly in 1995 that he felt the university turned a blind eye due to Schlichter’s “golden boy” status.
Hitting the big time, diving into sports betting
In 1982, Schlichter’s move to the NFL was rocky.
His deal with the Colts paid him a base annual salary of $140,000 and a $350,000 signing bonus. But Schlichter ended up being the Colts’ third-string backup in his rookie season, which was shortened due to a players’ strike. Schlichter’s play was limited and the Colts didn’t win a single game the entire season.
Schlichter took to sports betting heavily during the strike, with his debts reportedly climbing to over $600,000 at one point.
Schlichter would later say that he’d gotten into trouble by entering a vicious cycle in which, as his losses got bigger, his wagers increased as well, in a frenzied effort to make up the losses. Schlichter would use his charm to bilk money from friends, family and anyone who’d lend an ear. It’s a skill that would serve his habit well.
Betting on the FBI for help
By the end of 1982, Schlichter still owed bookies over $150,000, and the bookies were threatening him. So he decided to go to the FBI. His cooperation led to the arrest of four men on charges of operating a gambling enterprise in interstate commerce.
Schlichter was largely betting on college basketball games, but he admitted to placing bets on NFL games, too, so the NFL suspended him for 13 months on the condition he seek treatment. He was reinstated in 1984, but five games into the 1985 season Schlichter was released by the Colts (then in Indianapolis) amid rumors that he was still gambling.
Schlichter signed with the Buffalo Bills in 1986 but was cut before the season started. He seemed headed to the Cincinnati Bengals to backup Boomer Esiason in 1987, but an arrest for being a part of a multi-million dollar sports betting operation led to the deal being killed by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Following his ousting from the NFL, Schlichter played in the Canadian Football League and had a brief but successful run in the Arena Football League in the early ’90s. But the entire time his severe gambling problem continued unabated.
From the field to the prison yard
Schlichter reportedly sought treatment for his gambling compulsion fairly steadily once it became public knowledge. He would check himself into treatment centers and see therapists, while also speaking to fellow addicts to offer advice and to non-addicts to warn of the pitfalls.
But, according to numerous reports, Schlichter was gambling and hustling for money throughout his recovery efforts.
In January 1995, he was arrested for cashing $175,000 in bad checks in Vegas casinos. He served 16 months in federal prison, then was arrested again shortly after his release for stealing checks, earning an eight-year sentence of which he’d serve just 13 months.
Schlichter spent most of the years between 1995 and 2006 in prison, getting into even more trouble for betting from behind bars.
A failed shot at redemption
After being released from prison in 2006, Schlichter moved to Washington Court House, Ohio with his mother and seemed to be embracing his shot at redemption. He started a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping other compulsive gamblers. In 2009, he campaigned with his mother against an Ohio ballot measure that would allow casinos in the state, espousing the dangers legalized gambling would bring.
But by 2011, Schlichter was back in the news for nefarious reasons. Schlichter was charged with a first-degree felony connected to another ticket-selling scheme. Schlichter reportedly stole more than $1 million in the scam.
In interviews with detectives after his 2011 arrest, Schlichter said in his lifetime he estimated that he’d won $2 or $3 million but that’d he’d lost $6 or $7 million.
Prosecutors claimed that he was gambling again shortly after his 2006 prison release and had restarted his ticket scam in 2009. Schlichter was sentenced to more than 10 years on federal and state charges, respectively, though he was allowed to serve the terms concurrently.
In 2020, Schlichter was released from federal prison and transferred to Ohio to serve the remainder of his sentence. Schlichter’s lawyer pressed the Franklin County Common Pleas judge Christopher Brown to waive the rest of his sentence due to concerns about COVID-19 and Schlichter’s diagnosed Parkinson’s disease and dementia.
But Judge Brown said he felt it would be against the public’s best interest to release Schlichter early, calling him “past the point of rehabilitation.”
“He has demonstrated over and over and over he has not earned the court’s trust,” Brown said. “It’s sad and it’s tragic.”
Schlichter is currently awaiting a preliminary hearing on his felony drug possession arrest. The hearing is scheduled for Nov. 29.
Responsible gambling resources in Ohio
With sports betting on the way, the state of Ohio has been stepping up resources to address problem gambling and promote responsible gambling.
The Ohio Lottery Commission, the Ohio State Racing Commission, the Ohio Casino Control Commission, and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services collaborate on the Ohio for Responsible Gambling initiative, which offers numerous tips and resources online.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission’s Responsible Gambling page of its website offers the following resources:
- Information about applying to the Ohio Voluntary Exclusion Program
- Mental health resources for problem gamblers
- A list of questions designed to help identify whether a person has a gambling problem
- Addresses and websites for a number of problem gambling treatment facilities in Ohio
- Phone numbers for several different state and national gambling helplines