'Marriages have ended, children have gone hungry and people have cracked up under the strain of it all'
Michael D Higgins really likes sport. I've seen the proof. Back in 2011 Galway United fielded the worst team in League of Ireland history. These lads were the Galacticos of underachievement, finishing with a total of six points and 32 defeats from 36 matches and a goal difference of minus 95.
One night in Terryland, Sligo had just put eight goals past the home side and who did I see as we were leaving the ground? Michael D. There wasn't much in it for him. Not even local profile because at that stage even Galwegians had given up on the team to the extent that 90 per cent of the fans were from Sligo. But there he was, a little less chirpy than usual perhaps, but following his team to the last. That, I thought, is a man who really likes sport.
So when the President spoke on the subject of gambling and sport last week he wasn't jumping on a bandwagon. He was just a man speaking out about a phenomenon which is having an enormously detrimental effect on something he loves.
"I am very concerned about gambling," he said. "If I had my way I wouldn't have advertising or any access to gambling platforms in sport at all. I really worry when I read the cases. I visited Hope House in Mayo recently who have been a great assistance to some people who have got over what is, hopefully, a terrible temporary problem. I think in a way we should protect our sports by keeping them free from this kind of stuff."
Michael D was quick to point out that as President he can't directly do anything in this area, adding, "I'm no influence except to say what I think." Yet by raising the issue in this way the President has given a moral lead to everyone who's been shilly-shallying about the massive increase in problem gambling here.
The bookies would naturally prefer if little was done. The Irish Bookmakers Association have said that such an advertising ban would be "impractical," with their chairperson Sharon Byrne opining that, "Gambling for the vast majority of people is an enjoyable, leisure activity but for a small percentage it can become a problem and as a responsible industry it is up to us to ensure we have adequate services available and that people are aware of those services if gambling is becoming an issue."
The hypocrisy fairly drips from that statement. Nothing to see here. A 'responsible industry?' This is the same industry which has allowed people to run up massive debts without ever questioning where the money's been coming from, an industry which watches consistent winners like hawks while adopting a laissez-faire attitude to perpetual losers, an industry which chivvies along new customers with gimmicky 'free bets', an industry which has only begun to pay lip service to the damage it's done because it fears some kind of regulation might be in the offing.
How, for example, are the bookies 'ensuring we have adequate services available'? Have they been lashing money into the likes of Hope House or perhaps setting up their own chain of rehab facilities? Maybe they've been funding a television advertising campaign showing the damage problem gambling has done to people's lives? Or maybe not.
Maybe they think that bit at the end of bookies' ads, the one that goes 'when the fun stops, stop,' covers their irresponsible arses, even though it's just thrown in like an afterthought after all the stuff extolling the immense fun of gambling. The problem gambler is the golden goose of bookmaking and they've no intention of killing him.
It's not 'impractical' to ban gambling advertising around sports events. Earlier this year the Australian government banned all such ads on TV between 5.0am and 9.30pm. And it's almost two decades since Minister for Health Micheál Martin banned all tobacco advertising and sponsorship in this country. Gambling advertising should go the way of the Carrolls All Stars and the Benson and Hedges Irish Masters snooker tournament. It'll be easy enough if the political will is there.
When it comes to sport, gambling advertising is even more pernicious than smoking or alcohol sponsorship. Even the most imaginative copywriter couldn't make it seem that having a fag or knocking back a pint was an integral part of the sporting experience. But gambling is always portrayed as in some way an essential and necessary adjunct to the big match or meeting. The ads insist that gambling enjoys a symbiotic relationship with sport. In reality the relationship is parasitic. Gambling battens on to sport's body and does whatever seems necessary to make itself grow ever bigger and stronger.
The advertising is highly effective, especially with younger people. Over 60 per cent of English teenagers surveyed thought the ads made gambling look like fun. More worryingly, 49 per cent of them thought the ads showed that gambling was a good way to make money. Perhaps that's why over half of 16-year-olds have gambling apps on their smartphones, even though they're not allowed place a bet legally till they turn 18. Figures like this suggest serious trouble lies ahead.
Sometimes I wonder if the lack of political will to do something about the problem results from the heartless idea that it mainly affects irresponsible young men who deserve what's coming to them. But even a perfunctory examination of recent high-profile court cases shows it's not just the problem gambler whose life can be destroyed by his addiction.
Others are affected too. Employers have almost gone bust because addicts stole in order to fund their habits. Parents have incurred financial hardship as they made restitution in the hope of keeping their son out of jail. Marriages have ended, children have gone hungry and people have cracked up under the strain of it all. The addict might be the most visible victim but he's never the only one.
But the young and middle-aged men who've let gambling take a hold of them also deserve our support. The best correspondent I ever had to this column was a man who had lost almost everything through gambling addiction but after treatment set about winning back his family, his job and his self-respect. He did it too. Some of the finest people I've ever met have come out of Hope House or Cuan Mhuire or Tabor Lodge, beaten addictions of various kinds and become all the stronger for it. There is always a way back. None of us are perfect.
Gambling addiction is not a new thing. In perhaps the greatest novel ever written in the English language, Middlemarch, George Eliot wrote about, "That specific disease in which the suspension of the whole nervous energy on a chance or risk becomes as necessary as the dram to the drunkard." Human nature changes less than you suppose. It's also interesting that the character Eliot is at pains to point out is not actually an addict. Fred Vincy still manages to incur a ruinous debt when he loses the run of himself at the billiard table. You don't need to be an addict for gambling to damage your life.
One hundred and 16 years after Middlemarch the problem gambler is more hard-pressed than ever before. There are unlimited opportunities to gamble online and unlimited exhortations to do so on a variety of media. When he's broke there are credit cards to use in an effort to even things up which will almost inevitably result in things getting so much worse that Macbeth's, "I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er," seems a suitable motto.
Young sportsmen are particularly prone to this problem. There's something almost tragic about how something positive, an interest in sport, can become a dangerous weakness. Gambling firms prey on this and bombard viewers of sporting events with commercials to an extent which makes the process resemble brainwashing more than traditional advertising.
There are people out there fighting for their very lives because of a gambling habit. The least we can do is give them every assistance possible. Banning gambling advertising during TV broadcasts and gambling sponsorship of sporting events would be a start. As our President pointed out last week, "The integrity of sport means having care for everyone who participates. Having care for everyone who participates means not exposing them when they are in fact vulnerable. How you deal with vulnerabilities is by preparing them, of course. But you can't do everything through education. For too long in Ireland we often ignore problems that are staring us in the face."
Ignore this one and future generations will look back and wonder why. They won't forgive politicians who kicked to touch. A world of extra pain awaits if action isn't taken. Michael D Higgins has set the ball rolling. Let's do this.
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Sunday Indo Sport