Tuesday 24 October 2017

Swimming with the sharks

John O'Brien

The news of Newcastle United's 'strategic alliance' with Wonga brought to mind a joke that did the rounds a while back. "America's total national debt has reached 14.3 trillion," it went. "They only asked Wonga for $200."

Wonga, for the uninitiated, is a UK-based finance company that offers small- to medium-sized loans at inflated rates of interest or, as its many detractors would have it, specialises in good old-fashioned usury.

In the hand-wringing that followed, it was pointed out that the kind of people most likely to shop at Wonga are the salt of the earth, working-class folk liberally sprinkled around the north-east, hard-pressed types easily swayed by the quick-fix loan, a short-term gain for, in many cases, more long-term pain. A slap in the face from the football club they love and support passionately.

So far, so modern football. Yet when we're snug in front of the fire watching those big pot-bellied Geordies roaring their side on, stripped to their waists in mid-January, we'll think of a time when the likes of Jackie Milburn climbed out of the pits to become a local legend without losing touch with the people. Newcastle was different. Everyone's second favourite club. A club of the people. Or so we thought.

Now it belongs to Wonga. And Sports Direct. And any other wealthy conglomerate who wants to buy a piece of it. You could, if you wanted, draw comfort from reports that the club's Muslim players were deeply troubled by the association with a money lender -- a violation of Sharia Law apparently -- but no concrete evidence was furnished to prove it. By and large, the club announced the four-year £24m deal with a clear conscience.

In any event there was, inevitably, a Daily Mail reader or two million at hand to guide them free of the moral maze. These are the same Muslim players, they hissed, who have no issues drawing wages every week that few in the north-east could dream about making in a year, who made no bones about wearing the logo of Virgin Money or Northern Rock and who cheerfully ply their trade in the Barclays Premier League. Have that.

Knowing the horrific greed and macho posturing that ran through the big financial institutions like a virus, we still don't condemn them for what they are, merely for what ego-driven, testosterone-fuelled fools allowed them to become. You don't have to like them to acknowledge they have a useful role to play. A functioning society would soon crumble without them.

Can we say the same of the 'payday' loan firms whose profits grow exponentially during times of recession? Of course not. Whatever they argue to the contrary, despite their annoying habit of referring to the desperados who avail of their services as "customers", their existence depends on turning a quick buck from the most vulnerable members of society and no football club with a shred of honour should want anything to do with them. You have to be able to draw the line somewhere.

Or have it drawn for you. How quaint it seems now to remember a time when horses were renamed to reflect tobacco sponsorship and GAA All Stars' posters came with the logo of a cigarette firm attached. A predominant sporting image is of a tortured Alex Higgins blowing plumes of thick smoke towards his opponent at the table. Higgins was the epitome of glamour then. The alternative was clean-living, water-sipping Steve Davis. Ugh! We wanted nothing to do with him.

And whatever his other crimes, we shouldn't forget that it was Charlie Haughey, as minister for health in the late 1970s, who first stood up to the tobacco industry here and told them their days investing in sport were numbered. When the powerful tobacco lobby resisted his efforts to curb their influence, Charlie simply responded the way he knew best: he faced them down and beat them.

Now we wonder who is going to tackle the drinks lobby as its involvement in sport goes the same way. The resolve the present government had shown about phasing out alcohol sponsorship and advertising appears to be wavering. Under pressure from fellow TDs, it seems, one of Róisín Shortall's last acts as junior minister for health was to extend the phasing out period for a further four years until 2020.

The arguments against outlawing alcohol sponsorship are both familiar and tiresome, fundamentally the same ones once trotted out repeatedly by the tobacco overlords: how will needy sports bodies survive without our cash? As it turned out, though, far from falling into the gutter, new sponsors simply moved in to plug the gap: major financial institutions, alcohol firms, fatty food producers. All the well-established pillars of society, in fact.

And now there's a new beast stalking the land: the gaming industry. Securing shirt deals for eye-popping sums with the world's biggest football clubs, becoming betting 'partners' to clubs and sporting institutions like the English FA which, amusingly, felt the need to lecture Newcastle on its choice of sponsor. Yet, should we wish to point our moral compass at financial institutions who profit from the weak and vulnerable, then best to include the betting industry too.

In case you're in any doubt about that, just recall Ivan Yates, the former head of Celtic Bookmakers, warning his staff to beware of 'sharks' who might eat into his profits or the Paddy Power representative on Liveline who defended his firm's closure of a winning account by suggesting, straight-faced, that it left more money in the pot for the other mugs, sorry customers, to share out.

There was nothing terrible about Enda Kenny turning up in Clonskeagh last week to smile and be seen as Paddy Power announced the creation of 600 new jobs -- the firm is unquestionably one of Ireland's great business success stories -- but it rang a little hollow when you consider that gambling profits are now driven by, still untaxed, online activity and that addiction levels are highest among 18- to 35-year-old males, the demographic most susceptible to suicide. Some things are not really worth crowing about.

For sure, this is tricky moral territory. In Australia, they have made concerted efforts to break the link between sport and alcohol, yet gambling is so tolerated that great commentators like Richie Benaud have been reduced to calling the odds during intervals, like bookies' assistants. And there are those too who see all of this as the overbearing influence of the nanny state and dismiss its supporters as wowsers -- the antipodean equivalent of Guardian-reading, leftie pinko liberals.

No doubt they'd view events here with horror and despair at the hard-drinking Paddies turning into a bunch of wowsers. If a victory for the wowsers is a small victory in turn for the decency and honour of sport, then count us in.

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