Gambling becomes a risky game behind closed doors
Addiction services are alarmed by the level of gambling problems among GAA players, says Damian Lawlor
LAST winter, Dessie Farrell highlighted the growing threat of gambling addiction among GAA players. He said that three inter-county stars had sought help from the Gaelic Players' Association for their problem.
Farrell, the GPA chief executive, issued a stark warning that gambling within the GAA had become "severe and widespread".
"You can have fellas on a coach going to a championship game and they're on the iPhone making bets. It's become a big, big problem," he said. "We're trying to get people who are dealing with these mental health/addiction issues back on their feet and give them a plan. But we're finding that a lot of players are on this merry-go-round, just ghosting through their lives."
Since then, a special helpline set up by the GPA encountered 30 callers within weeks of its introduction and gambling problems were the prevalent theme.
Three players openly approached the GPA for help, following in the footsteps of Oisín McConville and Niall McNamee, while several others indicated their own struggles.
"A couple of high-profile players have come forward publicly but some players have come forward discreetly too – guys who are open about it and have reached a point where things were getting out of control," says Gerry Cooney, former Offaly manager and addiction counsellor at the Rutland Centre. "They put their hands up and went to get help. In all sports and areas of life, gambling and online gambling addictions are now a serious problem.
"The online aspect is certainly growing. There is secrecy about it and it's very accessible. Literally all you need is a phone, an online account, TV and newspaper and you don't have to leave your house. Guys are on buses going to matches sharing stories of the latest odds and checking results. They have instant access with smart phones and it's all very sanitised how it's presented and marketed.
"The whole area is so seductive, very attractive and appealing to the punter. But the reality is a lot of people are in crisis, experiencing huge personal and financial difficulties. It's affecting players and their ability to perform and apply themselves. It's very difficult to focus on what you're doing if you're distracted. Other players have in fact acknowledged that the only time they felt in control was out on the field where they can leave their problems behind for a while at least."
The bravery of those who have come forward and shared their story publicly about their struggles is to be admired. Players like Niall McNamee and Oisín McConville broke barriers and encouraged others to seek help. Gambling addiction is not just a concern for the GAA. The problem crosses all boundaries, sporting and otherwise.
Indeed the extent of betting is truly staggering at this stage. One player told how his team-mates had placed €200 each on their side winning a championship, a common occurrence. But he added that as the season progressed so too did the excitement around the prospects of the team cashing in. He mentioned that before long some of the side was sucked into bets for other matches such as first scorer, leaders at half-time, man of the match specials and first goalscorer.
"Yes, it's really crept into sporting life now," Cooney says. "In some newspapers, for instance, it is noticeable that betting odds and prices are now often included after reviews of upcoming GAA matches.
"There is a rush and excitement in one's own assessment of the merits of teams and every sport now has potential for you to cash in. Every result yields to hindsight – the bet you should have done. Again, the papers are doing it now as well – articles on how you could have won at the weekend."
Match-fixing has already become a serious issue at top levels in other sports and while it's not a concern for the GAA at the moment, it's nonetheless a serious trend to be wary of, particularly with speculation around missed frees, first scorers and other game-based variables in recent times.
"Nothing like match-fixing has ever come to light in Gaelic games but we're aware of trends in other sports and no one is immune from it," says GPA head of communications Seán Potts.
"There is no indication, anecdotally or otherwise, of anything like that occurring so there's no need to sensationalise anything here. But separately, one area elite athletes are vulnerable to is having a diminished social life because of their effort and commitment which means they have an awful lot of time on their hands. Inevitably, some look to this area of sports betting and they might feel it's cool to be a punter. Maybe that's where problems can stem from.
"The GPA will look at gaining more feedback from our members and trying to get more stats and information to see what trends are out there and determine which ones need to be closely monitored.
"Three players have now come forward with gambling issues, but there are others as well. We would be foolish to be blind to the potential threat. We'd like to sit down with the relevant betting organisations and see what can be done. We've already spoken to the GAA about this so hopefully there will be progress sooner rather than later to pre-empt problems."
Gerry Cooney says that any player with questions or concerns about gambling matters should seek help immediately.
"Initially, everyone believes that they are too smart to lose control," he says. "With gambling, some people may have a bad experience and will recognise this is getting too much and stop while others keep going, become more secretive and start chasing their losses.
"Meanwhile, the hole gets bigger and they keep digging. There are no telltale signs as such. You can tell if people use drugs or drink because the signs are there, but with gambling you can go about your day's work and people are none the wiser. It's only when your behaviour and mood start to change that people realise something is wrong. It can take some time to detect because people are very clever at covering their tracks. That's why it's vital for families of players to seek support and guidance when they become aware of a potential problem too."
The GPA has run a counselling service for the last few years and has a network of clinical psychologists around the country, which their members can access for free.
But Cooney would also like to see county boards roll out an educational programme and reckons that on-site support could be included as part of backroom teams. He argues that with management set-ups including up to 20 people nowadays, it's more than conceivable they could include an individual with some skills in this area.
"County boards need to roll a plan out now," he says. "People have to acknowledge that there is a problem, accept that something needs to be done and encourage and make it safe for people to come forward. We're not all killjoys here but this is not an over-reaction; it's a serious issue and there's enough evidence to suggest that.
"You see these backroom teams growing with statisticians, motivators and sometimes team psychologists. Maybe now the time has come to include an individual who may be able to intercept problems which can affect the team.
"They could provide support on a number of levels and you couldn't put a price on that – everyone has issues, be it gambling, family, work or relationship issues. And as a GAA player, even if you've had a bad week, you still have to turn up on Saturday or Sunday and perform.
"What I'm suggesting would be very different to sports psychology. It's fine to have one person like that to promote positive thinking but it's not going to change the fact that you are struggling at home. Sports psychology gets the best of what you have and incorporates everything from visualisation to team focus.
"I don't think the notion of an additional counsellor or liaison officer is far-fetched. You work with 30 or more elite athletes and you want to give them the best possible chance. Every fella has a life to lead and whether they struggle with addiction issues or personal problems, it's in the team's interest for them to get support."
Cooney says that players suffering from any addiction problems first need to accept that they have an issue and then come forward.
"Those who decided to come forward did a huge amount for awareness of this issue and families have, as a consequence, become more aware of the potential for a problem.
"Going public is a very personal decision but it should be remembered that each individual in early recovery can only do so much. It is unfair to expect them to respond to requests for help from all corners of the country. Of course it is natural for individuals and concerned family members to seek advice from those in the public eye who are turning their lives around but sometimes they have to put their own recovery first."
Dessie Farrell feels the curse of gambling is coming at GAA players "like a steam train". His words should be heeded.