Amazing what cuts through sometimes. I went for lunch on Wednesday with a dear friend who, to put it mildly, wouldn’t be big into sport. She has nothing against it, it’s just a world that lies behind a door she has never felt the urge to open. A typical text message: “Going to be over your way today around 3.30, might drop by?” That was the day of the 2021 All-Ireland final.
Anyway, we met for a bowl of soup on Wednesday and her first question, even before we’d hung our coats on the backs of the chairs, was, “Well, is there going to be a replay?”
Reader, you could have dropped a 16th player into the gap between my jaw and upper lip. Those Carthusian monks in monasteries high in the French alps who only get to speak to the outside world twice a year? I’d have fancied the club final brouhaha to have reached them before it entered her orbit.
That’s when you know a sports story has crossed over. Paul Mannion and Conor Glass could have burst in and robbed the place wearing their Kilmacud and Glen jerseys and my friend wouldn’t have made the connection to the club final. But somehow, some way, she knew there was a row going on in the Gah and that somebody was looking for a replay.
When a row like that breaks out, all the GAA oxygen gets sucked in by it. There was no room this week to give Ballyhale their due as the greatest club side there has ever been in either code. The intercounty game starts back this weekend after the longest off-season in history and even that has had to cede ground to the fallout from last Sunday. All of which means that it was a bad week for you if you had any other GAA story to tell.
In that context, it was probably no surprise that a study laying out the gambling habits of intercounty GAA players came and went without leaving any footprints in the sand. It made for a piece in the news section of last week’s Sunday Independent but found minimal take-up elsewhere. Maybe that would have been the way of it regardless of what was filling the sports news agenda. But it clearly didn’t stand a chance in the face of CrokesSubGate.
The pity of it is that the findings are well worth the attention of a wider audience. The study published the results of a survey of 608 intercounty players – men and women – using the GPA and WGPA as a conduit. It found that the prevalence of problem gamblers was 4.8 per cent. That might sound like a fairly trifling amount, except that the prevalence of problem gamblers within the general public is 0.8 per cent. In other words, you are six times more likely to have a gambling problem if you play intercounty GAA than if you don’t.
And even if you narrow the general population down to males aged 25-34 (2.9 per cent of whom are considered to be problem gamblers) or 18-24 (1.9 per cent), the numbers among intercounty players are still off the charts. “Biggest problem in the GAA,” wrote one respondent. “In training dressingrooms or on buses to matches it is the core of the conversation for a high percentage of players,” wrote another.
[ Study finds ‘statistically significant’ link between playing team sports and gambling ]
The numbers are worrying across the board. The study found that 79 per cent of intercounty players are current gamblers. Not only is that higher than the general Irish population (65 per cent), it’s significantly higher than among European professional athletes (57 per cent). All problem gamblers in the report were male. Only four per cent said they would talk to a team-mate if they had a problem.
In comments by the players themselves, some of the very qualities that help them forge a career at the elite level of the game are put forward as factors. “The addictive/obsessive nature of most intercounty players’ personalities leave them very susceptible to gambling problems,” wrote one player. “With a feeling of no outlet, online gambling can be the buzz that this type of person seeks.”
Maybe the most eye-catching number of all is the finding that 19 per cent of respondents didn’t know that it’s against the GAA rules to bet on a game in which you are involved. “Most players bet on GAA due the knowledge they have on it,” wrote one player. “Betting on club matches players seem to think they have better knowledge than the bookie especially in club championships and tournaments with little exposure,” was another reply.
You don’t have to be an expert in addiction to hear the ticking of the bomb when it comes to gambling in the GAA. Nobody imagines for a second that Oisín McConville, Niall McNamee, Cathal McCarron, Richie Power and Conn Kilpatrick are the only intercounty players to have found themselves in the grip of the problem. The idea that merely being part of an intercounty playing panel increases your chances of becoming a problem gambler ought to send shudders through the association.
[ New gambling legislation is a good start on the road to remedial action ]
And yet, this study barely made a whisper in the wind over the past week. That’s despite the worrying numbers, despite the string of damning comments from the players surveyed and despite the fact that one of the four authors is Dr Jack McCaffrey (the Ethics’ Declaration states that “JM was an elite Gaelic Footballer”, which either suggests that it needs a slight update or that the other authors are sceptical about how this comeback of his is going to work out.)
Time and again, we are warned that gambling is a scourge of young Irish men. Time and again, we find out far too late that a high-profile GAA player has dug himself into a hole. For all the talk about the need to talk about it, we only ever seem to do so in retrospect. It shouldn’t take another young man to lay bare his despair and the damage he’s done to all belonging to him for us to make a big deal out of this.
You’re six times more likely to be a problem gambler if you play intercounty football or hurling. Imagine. There’s no better symbol of our collective sleepwalk than the fact that a study like this can come and go with hardly anybody noticing.