ELITE sportspeople are more at risk of becoming addicted to gambling than other sections of the community.
But though there have been several cases in the last decade of high-profile GAA players getting into serious debt due to their gambling, there is no empirical evidence that the problem is widespread.
Nonetheless, there are warning signs.
Since 2018 there has been a 20 per cent increase in the number of inter-county players availing of the Gaelic Players’ Association’s counselling and support service – which deals with a range of issues, including gambling addiction.
Furthermore, gambling was identified as the risky behaviour senior inter-county players perceive team-mates engage with most frequently in an ERSI report published in 2018.
It found that 80 per cent of county players believed their team-mates engage in gambling, on either a daily or a weekly basis.
It is possible that players’ behaviour has altered since this survey was conducted in 2016 but it also reported that the vast majority of players (77 per cent) believed team-mates did not engage in recreational drug use.
More interestingly, when asked for their views on their team-mate’s engagement in excessive alcohol consumption, players underestimated this compared to the volume of alcohol that players themselves revealed they drink.
This raises the possibility that team-mates also underestimated the amount of gambling their colleagues actually engage in. Players were not asked in the survey about their own gambling habits, because it was felt that they might not respond reliably.
Though there has been little other research done on the topic in Ireland, all the international studies suggest elite athletes are more likely to develop a gambling problem than the general population.
GAA’s Community and Health Manager Colin Regan explained why this is the case.
"There is an intrinsic link between the betting industry and a lot of sport, which means elite athletes are exposed to heightened amounts of advertising and even gambling parlance.
"There has also been research done into the mindset of the athletes in terms of them being high risk takers.
"During their downtime elite athletes are often looking to replicate the buzz they get through their sport and it’s often the case that they can turn to gambling, and that can be true of both individual and team athletes.
"Furthermore, in teams there can often be a culture of having a flutter, that can spread out across the squad."
"We do encounter a number of players seeking support every year," added Regan, who stressed there was no evidence that cases of problem gambling within inter-county GAA are any greater that what exists in the wider community.
The GPA’s Player Welfare Manager Jennifer Rogers is at the coalface of the issue.
"It is definitely an issue we have been looking at, though it is important to say the problem is a societal issue which is not exclusive to GAA players.
"We know from the ERSI report that gambling was something that players perceived might be a risk behaviour that their team-mates were engaged in. The 80 per cent figure caught our attention.
"We have put in place a counselling service which is available free of charge to GPA members. They can ring the number at any time and receive one-on-one counselling over the phone and they can be referred to counselling sessions, if that is something they would like or require.
"We also support players with residential treatment if that is required. We all know the stories of high-profile players who have bravely spoken about their experience and the GPA is aware that it is an issue that can impact on players."
The GAA are currently finalising a new gambling-awareness programme, which was due to be rolled out this year until activities closed down in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We obtained a grant from the Gambling Awareness Trust and the plan was to put a significant programme in place in 2020. We trained up to 30 volunteer tutors last year and they were going to deliver a workshop on the topic in clubs. We were going to engage Justin Campbell, Oisín McConville and Niall McNamee to support that work,"
according to Regan.
Campbell, a former Galway hurler, is an addiction counsellor as is former Armagh footballer McConville, who revealed his gambling addiction problems in his autobiography, while Offaly footballer McNamee has also spoken publicly about his gambling issues.
Meanwhile the GPA is continuing an ongoing campaign to limit the links between the GAA and the betting industry.
GAA Congress supported a GPA motion in 2011 to ban sponsorship from betting companies.
"This was a very welcome and positive move. The GPA are look at taking this another step by banning betting companies advertising during live televised games," according to Rogers.
At this year’s Congress the GPA put forward a motion to enact such a ban. At the request of the GAA the matter was referred for further consultations to its Central Council.
"Our chairman Séamus Hickey and CEO Paul Flynn will work with the Central Council to put together a formal policy that can be brought before Congress in 2021 with a view to bringing it into rule," said Rogers.
Even though the UK has stricter legislation on gambling, there is growing concern in Britain over the growing links between the betting industry and the Premier League in particular.
Ten of the 20 Premier League clubs now carry a gambling company’s logo on their shirt, while Derby County took it to a different level when they did a deal with online casino 32Red to give the club an extra £1.5m to fund the signing of Wayne Rooney who wears squad number 32.
It has been estimated that 40,000 people in the Republic of Ireland have gambling addiction issues. It is fair to assume that among this cohort there are some inter-county players.
But it remains devilishly difficult to accurately establish just how many there are.