Pete Rose: Baseball’s Biggest Criminal or its Most Dishonored Victim?

By Samuel Turner

In 1989, Pete Rose was banned from all baseball activity indefinitely after pleading guilty to accusations of gambling. This ban has prevented the all-time hit leader from entering the Hall of Fame. Pete Rose may have engaged in gambling activity, but should this diminish all of his contributions to the sport? It should not because he was more than a gambler; he was a gambling addict. According to the DSM-5, a gambling addiction is understood as an impulse control disorder, where the affected party engages in activity beyond his or her control. Based on the definition of a gambling addict, Rose was a victim whose actions resulted from his disease. On March 16th, Sports Illustrated reported that Pete Rose submitted a formal reinstatement request, to which Rob Manfred replied, “I’m prepared to deal with that request on its merits.” Based upon the definition from the DSM-5, Rose was a gambling addict whose actions resulted from his disease and Manfred should view Rose more sympathetically, as a victim rather than a criminal.

The DSM-5 classifies gambling as a serious mental condition. Image Source.

Healthline devotes a webpage to defining gambling addiction. First, they reveal that The National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimates that 2-5% Americans are affected by a gambling addiction. True addicts exhibit their compulsory behavior even in periods of social, financial, or legal turbulence. The gambling brain appears to respond to the act of gambling the same way the alcoholic brain responds to a drink. Healthline presents many outcomes including losing one’s home and career as well as constantly denying the problem.  By the definition and information provided by Healthline, Pete Rose would seem to fall under this category. To understand Rose’s gambling addictions, we should consider his actions in relation to the above criteria of addiction.

Pete Rose, often referred to as Charlie Hustle for his hard work ethic, loved the game of baseball and has asserted that he would like to both manage a team in the future and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. If Rose loved the game so much, why would he engage in activity he knew was illegal and might result in banishment from his life’s passion? The answer is that Rose’s gambling addiction clouded his judgment, blinding him from considering the severe, long-term consequences of his actions.

A gambling addiction is far more serious than people realize. Scientific American released an article in October of 2013 entitled “How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling.”  The article opens with a story about a woman named Shirley who gambled for the first time in her mid-20s. A decade later she worked as a lawyer and began to travel to Atlantic City.  By her 40s, “she was skipping work four times a week to visit newly opened casinos in Connecticut. She played blackjack almost exclusively, often risking thousands of dollars each round—then scrounging under her car seat for 35 cents to pay the toll on the way home. Ultimately, Shirley bet every dime she earned and maxed out multiple credit cards. ‘I wanted to gamble all the time,’ she says. ‘I loved it—I loved that high I felt.’” Her story is not unlike Pete Rose, in which a person’s life can be destroyed a socially acceptable habit.

The same article claims that in the past two decades neuroscience and psychology have made tremendous strides in understanding how the brain changes and develops. In the middle of the cranium we have a series of neural circuits referred to as the reward system. When we do something to engage this region, we release dopamine, which promotes satisfaction and encourages habit formation. Addictive substances produce so much dopamine that the brain adapts by producing less as well as becoming less sensitive to the effects. Addicts build up a tolerance to their vice and need larger amounts of exposure to receive the high they have come to need. According to the article, “Research to date shows that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking.” In the same manner as substance addicts require increasingly stronger levels to get high, gambling addicts pursue increasingly riskier ventures. Both drug addicts and gambling addicts experience the effect of withdrawal. The article also refers to a 2005 German study that used a card game to show that “problem gamblers—like drug addicts—have lost sensitivity to their high: when winning, subjects had lower than typical electrical activity in a key region of the brain’s reward system.” The gambling addict is a victim of his or her habit more than a conscious abuser. One of the toughest parts of this addiction is that unlike most substances, gambling is socially acceptable. It is easy to get hooked before anyone realizes it is dangerous and it is crucial that people change their conception about gambling addictions.

Many psychiatrists have shared their insights on Pete Rose with the general conclusion that he is a gambling addict. In late 1989, Rose met with Dr. Randolph Hillard, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, who said, “Pete and I have concluded that he does, in fact, suffer from a clinically significant gambling disorder. He has concluded that he is powerless before gambling, that he will begin an ongoing treatment program, and that he can never again gamble on anything.” Additionally, Dr. Lustberg, who has been featured in hundreds of publications, including the New York Times, claims, “Gamblers frequently commit illegal acts in order to finance their gambling. Rose has been convicted of income tax violations, which may have been an outright attempt to avoid paying the government, which only further suggests that Rose struggles with many internal demons.” Qualified professionals believe Rose was a victim of an addiction, an addiction which has been known to increase the likelihood of criminal activity and diminish one’s control over his or her actions.

In spite of Dr. Hillard’s assertion that “Pete and I concluded…” Pete Rose feels that he is not a gambling addict. During an interview with the Huffington Post on May 3rd 2011, the interviewer asked Pete Rose for his position: “When asked if he thought he was a gambling addict, he quickly shot down the thought and said he was not. ‘I don’t think I was an addict. I think I could control what I was doing,” said the all-time hits leader. “I just was wrong and I got caught.”’ Rose may believe he is not an addict, but gambling addicts are known to deny their problem.  Dr. Lustberg asserts, “Individuals with a gambling disorder are often in denial of their problem, which unfortunately does not allow them to seek the treatment they so desperately need. Moreover, it ultimately undermines their capacity to change their dysfunctional behavior. Rose has been a classic example of a person in denial who despite overwhelming evidence continues to deny the full extent of his behaviors.” The fact that Rose does not believe he is an addict despite the overwhelming evidence indicates that he truly has a problem and needs help and support, not banishment from the baseball community.

Victorious Pete Rose in his iconic pose. Rose had an illustrious career spanning from 1963 until 1986. Image Source.

Victorious Pete Rose in his iconic pose. Rose had an illustrious career spanning from 1963 until 1986. Image Source.

An addiction to gambling is no different than an addiction to alcohol, painkillers, sex, or illicit activities. The DSM says, “This new term and its location in the new manual reflect research findings that gambling disorder is similar to substance-related disorders in clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity, physiology, and treatment.”  The DSM’s placement of this addiction indicates that a gambling addiction is both real and affects people in a manner typical of other addictions. In an interview on August 12th 2013, Rose said, “However, if I am given a second chance, I won’t need a third chance. And to be honest with you, I picked the wrong vice. I should have picked alcohol. I should have picked drugs or I should have picked up beating up my wife or girlfriend because if you do those three, you get a second chance. They haven’t given too many gamblers a second chances [sic] in the world of baseball.”

Modern neuroscience and psychology have reconsidered their position on a gambling addiction, ruling it more serious than previously thought. A gambling addiction, unlike other addictions is borne from a socially acceptable practice that quickly spins out of control before people can intervene or acknowledge the problem. From the most qualified professionals Rose was a victim of this disease. Not only baseball, but also all people need to start treating this as a serious problem that can arise if left unchecked. Pete Rose is a gambling addict who could not help himself and who cost himself a career and life in baseball. Pete Rose was once loved and celebrated. That man is not gone, but corrupted by a formally misunderstood habit. Part of moving forward with the education of this disease is to forgive those affected in the present and the past. When someone makes a judgment about Pete Rose, it is essential that before critiquing his gambling habit, they understand what a gambling addiction really is.

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5 responses to “Pete Rose: Baseball’s Biggest Criminal or its Most Dishonored Victim?

  1. Really interesting take on the Pete Rose issue. I’ve always been okay with the lifetime ban as a consequence for breaking the rules. This essay makes me less comfortable with my thinking. Your sources add authority to your ideas. Connecting gambling addiction to other addictions makes sense. Now I wonder how far an analogy could stretch. Could PED users claim addiction?

    On the writing: I appreciate the direct and active style of the essay, though I’d like to see a more subtle start to the frame–maybe treating the initial question as a rhetorical one, at least to begin. But maybe that’s just my own preference, to avoid answering tough questions (like at the end of my first paragraph). You show in this essay you’re willing to take on some tough questions.

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    • Thank you for your take on my work. I was initially bringing in the idea of PEDs but there has not been sufficient research especially from psychologists on its addictiveness. I think that would be an interesting direction to take this essay though.

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  2. Great essay! Really opened my eyes to the whole Pete Rose saga. I used to think he was nothing more than a great baseball player with terrible character, but now I feel I need to reconsider my thoughts about the guy. Your sources really do a lot to support your argument and your writing style is easy to follow. I enjoyed reading this piece!

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  3. Great essay. Really flows well and the sources used back up the argument enough to change my perspective on Pete Rose. Addiction in general is a very scary thing and this work does a great job of portraying how unhealthy and helpless gambling addiction (along with any other addiction) can be. Overall great job.

    Like

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