Thursday 23 November 2017

Dangers of gambling need to be addressed head onor GAA could fall prey to murky side of sport betting

There's no point in pretending that matches here are immune, writes Colm O'Rourke

When Dessie Farrell commented last week on the problem of players gambling in the GAA there was surprise, bewilderment and disbelief. I am sure there were many who thought Farrell was exaggerating the situation.

If anything, the likelihood is that Farrell was underplaying the issue and it was good that it was given a public airing rather than giving the impression that GAA players are above temptation.

Why would anyone think the GAA is any different to other sports? All that is different is the scale. Take a look at any of the major world sports and you will discover that some of the biggest names have been heavy gamblers. Household names from the soccer and snooker fraternity could hardly go a day without a bet while there have been a couple of high-profile GAA players recently who spoke openly about their gambling addiction.

There have been plenty of betting scandals in sport down the years. As far back as 1919, eight players from the Chicago White Sox team in the World Series were given lifetime bans, while several bans have arisen from investigations in cricket. So where there is competition there is betting and there will always be players who are tempted.

Now of course there is a big difference between a person who likes the odd bet on a variety of sports and those with a gambling addiction. This addiction causes just as many problems as alcoholism and it is very useful that the GPA have a confidential professional counselling service available to all players, presumably club as well as county.

As this problem can wreck homes and destroy relationships it needs to be viewed and treated in the same way as other addictions, but the first thing needed is acceptance. The GAA may appear like a duck here; on the surface everything seems calm but there is a lot of action underneath.

This is an area where I do have some knowledge. For a few years I wrote a betting column on GAA matches for the Racing Post and like to have the occasional wager on horses and football. That column had a very high success rate too and for many it makes a lot more sense to have a bet on a game with two participants rather than a horse race with many more variables.

You can moralise all you like about the rights and wrongs of advising on betting but again the separation must be made between the gambler who bets recklessly and a punter who likes a bet.

Anecdotally it appears to me that there are far more young people having a punt on GAA matches. The variety of bets is truly staggering -- first scorer, who leads at half-time, total number of points, man of the match, first goalscorer, winning margin. The possibilities are almost endless as well as just straight betting on the result. I often think that the biggest favour I can do for many young people who look for a tip is to give them a loser. If they get a win and get easy money they might think that it is better than working. It is important for young people to know the value of money and to know what it is like to be without it.

Gambling is not new to the GAA. When I started playing in the 1970s there was heavy betting on big club matches, especially county finals. The method was that one side would gather up their pile of dough and leave it in the rivals' local pub to be covered. There was often a shed load of money involved and anyone who wanted could take a certain portion of the bet. It was rare in those days if a bet was not covered and it was a simple straight bet on the result, no odds, nothing. A win guaranteed greater enjoyment for the winners.

And it is common for teams to place a bet on themselves to win the championship before it starts, knowing a win will pay for the team holiday.

Anyone who played in New York often saw tens of thousands changing hands. The local bars were the honest brokers and big gambles laid often involved frantic phone calls to leading players in Ireland to get them to travel out. Being on the winning team in those situations often meant generous expenses.

A small bet on a game can create a bit of fun among friends, but there are obvious perils involved if it gets to be anything more than that. Many intelligent people have taken on the bookies but it is invariably they who drive better cars, live in bigger houses and holiday in nicer places. The punter wins occasionally, and must do to keep the whole thing ticking over. But the dangers are clear from scandals in other sports where players can actively work to get a certain result. And there are plenty of unscrupulous people prepared to go to any lengths to help in their wagering.

How to regulate this is something which the GAA should be looking at. It is hardly feasible that drinks, tobacco and betting companies would be linked together and a sponsorship ban slapped on all. It would be preferable for the GAA if some of the profits from betting on football and hurling could be channelled back into addiction and education programmes either on a voluntary basis or else through the tax collected at central government level.

Players should not be allowed to bet on a game they are playing in. Of course it is difficult to police, but not impossible. Imagine a player going to the toilet at half-time in a big match in Croke Park and bringing his iPhone with him to have a bet on his online account.

Bad enough if he was backing his team to win but what if he was betting on them to lose and at the end of the match he had a free to equalise. The dangers are clear but even worse again is if the referee was having a punt on a match he was in charge of. Many in the GAA would not like to think there is the same potential for corruption, even if the sums are not as big, as in other sports.

Dessie Farrell has turned over a stone here and there are a lot of unpleasant creatures scurrying around. Gambling addiction is just one of them, even if it is the one which causes most damage.

Sunday Indo Sport

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