Congress is likely to pass a rule banning betting companies from becoming shirt sponsors
In the circumstances, this seems a safe bet. On Saturday next a motion from Central Council to GAA Congress will seek to end sponsorships from betting firms. The GAA's position has been hardening, following submissions to legislators calling for tighter regulations and last year's Congress motion which made betting on a match your own team is involved in a breach of rule.
As it stands, the impact on county teams of this latest proposed measure would be virtually nil, with none of the 32 featuring a betting company as its chief sponsor. Armagh has a large betting firm on its list of official partners, but the industry has had little impact in sponsoring GAA teams and competitions. Instead sponsors are drawn from a diverse range of fields like insurance, finance, telecommunications, agri-feeds, food and pharmaceuticals.
It is more prevalent but not widespread at club level. In Leitrim the junior championship has a local independent bookmaker as sponsor. In Crossmaglen, the football team has been backed by a large bookmaking firm since 2008, where the incongruity of it being the club of ex-gambling addict Oisín McConville has been highlighted more than once.
McConville had only just bared his soul about his troubles when the deal was struck, an arrangement that still holds today, with the sponsor's logo on the front of one of the most recognisable and respected jerseys on the club circuit. But by the start of January 2019, when the expected new measures will come into place, Crossmaglen will need to have found a replacement.
McConville helped launch a joint GPA-GAA initiative on tackling gambling addiction in 2014, producing a set of guidelines for clubs to help those affected. Estimates suggest that up to 40,000 people in Ireland may have a problem with gambling and studies have shown Ireland to have the third largest gambling-related debts per head of capita in the world. It is not uniquely a GAA problem, but the GAA has been quick to recognise it, concerned by high-profile cases like McConville and others such as Niall McNamee, Cathal McCarron and Davy Glennon.
"I think this motion shows the GAA is standing up and doing something and making sure it is not something which becomes more infiltrated," says McConville. "Even looking at the Premier League (in England) it (betting sponsorship) came in and didn't have a huge impact and then built momentum as time went on. And that is something I could see happening in the GAA; we are nipping it in the bud."
In the Premier League, nine of the 20 clubs are sponsored by betting firms this season, with Fulham the first club to go down that road in 2002. There has been a rapid spread in the industry's influence but also some backlash with the governing body, the FA, severing its lucrative sponsorship agreement with Ladbrokes after an internal review. The case of Joey Barton, suspended by the FA for 18 months for match betting, when the same Association endorsed a large betting firm, led to understandable shouts of hypocrisy and prompted some reflection.
The cases of McConville and Barton have similarities. The idea of McConville being asked to wear a shirt bearing a bookmaker's name seems, at the very least, deeply insensitive, all the more so when he was never consulted despite the publicity around his own difficulties with gambling. At that stage his inter-county career was winding to a close but he remained a valuable club player. The motion before Congress next weekend will, if passed as expected, ensure that no player has to face that kind of dilemma again.
"It sort of took me from left field, nobody had said it to me," McConville says. "It was not that they approached me to say if it was OK. The club needed a sponsor and went and got a sponsor. It wasn't ideal. Suppose at the time a lot of people mentioned it was a morality thing, I was going to have to make a decision about whether to wear this jersey, and to tell you the truth there was a bit of soul-searching done.
"But football was the one thing, it was the only thing I had when I was in a bad place, one of the things that kept me alive. I chose football and I chose to wear that jersey. It was not ideal but it was what it was and I also did it because I didn't really have a huge amount of confidence or self-esteem at the time.
"There are 500 or so people in the club and the issue would have affected only me directly, so to throw my toys out of the pram would have been a little bit selfish, I thought. I sucked it up and moved on. My inter-county career was over effectively at that stage. I stayed on with my club and we won a couple more All-Irelands. I knew there was more in me."
When Crossmaglen won their fourth All-Ireland in 2007, McNamee Bakeries were their sponsor. With the level of increased attention surrounding the team they became a more attractive option to other sponsors. But Bar Once Racing still appeared an odd choice. McConville says he stayed on good terms with the man who owns the betting company, and members of his own family were on the executive that sanctioned the deal. Did it not occur to someone there that this was insensitive? "I don't think they think like that," says McConville. "I don't think they thought that - the people on the committee. They took a lucrative sponsorship, much more that what we were getting before from the local bakery."
It hits him more now "just how strange it was and probably how odd it was for someone in my position. That's the thing though. If this was somebody else in a similar situation it would probably ring more alarm bells with me. When you are in that situation yourself and your self-esteem wouldn't be great it's different."
Betting companies enjoy less resistance in other Irish sporting fields. The FAI retains one large betting firm as a sponsor in spite of the move by its English counterpart in ditching Ladbrokes. In the domestic soccer league, of the 10 clubs in the top division, two have betting companies as their main sponsor with their names featured prominently on the team kit. Four others have betting companies listed as associate sponsors. In rugby, two of the 10 clubs in the top division of the Ulster Bank League are supported by betting companies.
Next Saturday's Congress motion has its origins in the Community and Health department of the GAA, supported by the National Health and Wellbeing Committee. It will propose that the sponsorship by a betting company of any GAA competition, team, gear, or facility be forbidden, emphasising that it is part of a wider package of measures currently underway to tackle problem gambling.
"It kind of was the next step in a number of steps that we have been taking down that road," explains Colin Regan, GAA community and health manager. "In 2015 we would have made a submission to the Gambling Control Bill to stop betting on sporting events deigned for juveniles or under 18 players. The year before in 2014 the GAA and GPA issued its first gambling guidelines for clubs and members, and last year we had a motion to rule against players, mentors and officials from betting on games they were involved in.
"Looking at the evolution of sports policy we felt ourselves in a relatively fortunate situation in that the horse had not bolted in terms of gambling sponsorship in the GAA and we feel it best to take a pro-active step."
He believes Government legislation to stop sponsorship can't be relied on in the short term. "We don't even have a gambling control bill let alone legislation advanced enough to recommend any discontinuation in the relationship between betting sponsorship and sport."
In Britain, the Labour Party has said it would, if elected, encourage the FA to introduce a ban on betting sponsorship on team shirts and, failing that, it would introduce legislation.
In Ireland there has been little progress on the Gambling Control Bill first published in 2013. The latest indications are that an updated Bill may be published by the end of this year. The Bill intends to introduce a gambling regulator independent of the industry who would regulate areas including sports sponsorship and access to young people who are deemed particularly vulnerable.
In the meantime, the GAA is taking its own steps to self-regulate. High profile cases involving GAA players such as McConville have made gambling addiction more topical. "I think those high profile cases fostered some good discussion and debate on the topic," says Regan. "If you look at the GAA why is it that GAA players are the most likely to seek out help about issues relating to gambling, depression, anxiety etc?
"I think, and this is not based on scientific research, it is something to do with the proximity of the players to their communities. Even the county players are all club players as well and they feel safe in opening up, they know they have that support behind them."
But he says the GAA can still only have a limited role to play. "We can't control at half-time on the live GAA broadcast on RTÉ that our viewers won't be bombarded with gambling ads. There is a great need for the Gambling Control Bill to be pushed through, putting more stringent regulations in place."
Problem gambling on rise
In 2016 the GPA said gambling had overtaken depression as the number one issue players were asking them for help with. In recent years a number of prominent GAA players have made their addiction public.
Niall McNamee: The outstanding Offaly forward admitted to spending more than over€200,000 on a chronic gambling habit. The Offaly manger at the time, Gerry Cooney, a counsellor at the Rutland Centre in Dublin, helped him with his early recovery which began after McNamee revealed his secret addiction to his father. Shortly before that, in August 2011, he sold his car for half its value to fund his habit and three years before he lost €8,000 in one day.
Cathal McCarron: An All-Ireland winner with Tyrone whose dark struggle with gambling led to him leaving leave his home over threats to his personal safety. His autobiography published in 2016 gave a frank account of his descent into a gambling addiction and the lengths he was prepared to go to feed the habit.
Davy Glennon: A Galway hurler who appeared in the 2012 All-Ireland final as a substitute, winning a controversial free which led to the equalising score from Joe Canning and a replay. His mother later admitted that she had to re-mortgage the family home to pay off his debts.
Antrim: Creagh Concrete
Clare: Pat O’Donnell & Co
Cork: Chill Insurance
Derry: H&A Mechanical Services
Donegal: KN Group
Down: EOS IT Solutions
Fermanagh: Tracey Concrete
Kerry: Kerry Group
Kildare: Brady Family
Laois: MW Hire Group
Leitrim: Bush Hotel
Limerick: Sporting Limerick
Longford: Glennon Brothers
Mayo: Intersport Elverys
Roscommon: Club Rossie
Tipperary: Intersport Elverys
Tyrone: Tyrone Fabrication
Waterford: TGS Integration
Westmeath: P O’Brien Renault Dealer
Wexford: Gain Feeds
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