A silent addiction rife within sport
As more people speak out – albeit anonymously – and seek help, the lid is cautiously being lifted on gambling addiction, both among GAA players and more widely in sport, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL
‘IT’S SEVERE AND widespread.” That’s how the Gaelic Players’ Association chief executive, Dessie Farrell, this week described a growing culture of gambling addiction among some GAA players. When the GPA began offering players free counselling services, more than two years ago, it expected to be dealing with issues such as low self-esteem and relationship difficulties. What caught the organisation by surprise, especially in the past six months, is the number of players coming to it with gambling issues.
“This is going to hit us like a steam train coming down the tracks. That’s how serious it is,” says Farrell. Each of the dozen or more GAA players, past and present, who have spoken to The Irish Times in recent days acknowledges a re-established culture of gambling within the GAA, both at club and intercounty level, yet few were willing to speak, even anonymously, about that culture.
Ego and secrecy are two things that compulsive gambling thrives on. Add a sense of not wanting to betray the tribe and it’s easy see how problem gambling within the GAA has remained under the radar for so long. One local club manager, whose team won a county title recently, says that eight of his players had placed €500 each on the team to win. “Lads can’t resist the gambling, especially as there are few ways of getting money with the economy the way it is,” he says. “After we won the final, the fellas went straight to the bookie’s from the match. We had gathered in our clubhouse and were about to do a tour of the village, as it was the first title in many years, and I had to text lads to get them leave the bookie’s.”
This manager is also familiar with soccer leagues in his area, and he says that there is a suspicion that some games are being thrown because of large bets – though it is difficult, but not impossible, to fix team sports.
“Lads have better knowledge of a local hurling or soccer match than the English premiership, so there is more chance getting it right. I know intercounty players who back themselves every year. There is a lot going on with local soccer games, too. I was offered €3,000 as an incentive to win a soccer match from a bookie who stood to lose a lot of money if we didn’t win.”
When I ask how players spend their winnings, he says many end up giving a sizeable proportion back to the bookmaker. “The day after we won our final we were all in the pub, celebrating for the day, and lads were back betting again.”
Gambling seems to be more and more prevalent, especially among team sports, where there is a lot of downtime and where players, even at amateur club level, are making huge sacrifices in terms of their social lives in order to compete.
Several high-profile English premiership players have admitted gambling problems in recent years, and this week health professionals in Australia warned that the gambling problem among some of its elite sportsmen meant that up to 15 per cent are liable to develop gambling addiction at any one time.
Outside of sport, gambling has become normal for a generation, many of whom have never been inside a bookmaker’s shop. One member of Gamblers Anonymous says that in Cork city alone there has been a threefold increase in the number of its weekly meetings in recent years. He points out that Gamblers Anonymous holds meetings in 23 of Ireland’s 32 counties and that awareness that gambling can become an addiction is growing.
“We are seeing more young people than we have seen previously,” he says. “Gambling used to be more of a preserve for people in their late 30s to early 50s. We have a lot more teenagers coming and those in their early 20s. It is not just an issue in sports but also a more widespread issue. We have also had a sevenfold increase in the number of females coming to meetings in Cork. I’m not a psychologist, but there could very well be a link between being actively involved in sports and developing a gambling addiction. Gambling is ego-driven, and our people are high achievers, like many successful sports- and businesspeople.”
Online gambling especially is big business. It’s difficult to get a handle on what the online gambling market is worth in Ireland, but some believe it could be up to €2 billion a year, with Paddy Power, the country’s largest bookmaker, having somewhere in the region of a million active users.
Dr Niall Muldoon, a psychologist who is working with the GPA on its counselling services, says that players are using gambling as a means of social interaction more and more and that this may be leading to a rise in the number of sportspeople who come for treatment.
“Men being men, sometimes they talk on a superficial level. The betting covers a lot and allows you to talk about soccer and other club matches. You get a lot of information around who is playing well and so on. The guys I work with . . . the big thing is how easy it is to hide it,” he says. Muldoon also points to the pressure that now goes with playing for a county and how competitive it can be.
“With Gaelic players, they are living like professionals. They might have 15-20 games a season, travelling on buses, and cards and betting is going to be part of it. There is something about the pressure of intercounty level adding to all of this. We might need to research it more. Players are closed off, with no social life, and for some their weaknesses present through gambling.”
The two highest-profile GAA players who have talked openly about their gambling addictions are the Offaly footballer Niall McNamee and the Armagh star Oisín McConville, who wrote a book detailing his experiences. McNamee, who is 26, went public earlier this year about having gambling debts of €80,000; he estimates that he has spent €200,000 on gambling since he was 18. He sought treatment and spent time at the Rutland Centre.
In an interview afterwards, he said, “If you’re an alcoholic, everybody can see it because you’re falling around the place drunk. If you’re a drug addict, an overdose might stop you in your tracks. If you’re a gambler there are so many easy ways of hiding. Like, I could lose €1,000 and walk out in the street and chat away as if nothing was wrong.”
McConville, who this week said that every county team might have a player battling a gambling addiction, believes that part of the reason gambling has become so common among sports competitors is the ubiquity of gambling advertising and marketing during sporting events.
“You watch any sport, from darts to cricket, and chances are the odds will flash up halfway through the match or during a break. Even news reports feel they have to tell us the odds now. It used to be mainly alcohol advertising, but now, because it is something I watch out for, I notice it more and more.”
McConville says that the decision to go public about his addiction was the right one for him but that very few people are comfortable speaking about their problems openly.
“This is not just a sports problem. I have met people from all walks of life. It is very secretive, and that keeps it under wraps. Hundreds of people have talked to me about their gambling, but I can’t get one of them to tell their story further, not even anonymously. That in itself tells you something about it.”