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Ken Early: Joey Barton ban raises questions over sport’s gambling culture

Banned Burnley midfielder right to highlight the link between the media and gambling

Joey Barton has been banned for 18 months for breaking the English FA’s rules on gambling. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Joey Barton’s 18-month ban for breaking the FA’s rules on gambling brought a sudden end to one of the most lurid careers in recent English football history.

Barton will be remembered not so much for his footballing ability as for his poor impulse control, and for his distinctive verbal flair, honed by years of the sort of conflicts that people with poor impulse control find themselves getting into. He has an instinct for spotting weakness and finding the right barb.

He hadn’t even played for England when he mocked the entitlement of the England players who brought out autobiographies after the 2006 World Cup: “I played shit, here’s my book”. Most players would have been too diplomatic to say it, but Barton was never the type to hold back, as some of the pundits and media personalities who got involved in Twitter rows with him would learn to their cost.

So it was predictable that when the FA ban came down, Barton would not go quietly. Instead he issued a 1,500-word statement that drew an awkward link between his own breaking of the rules and the gambling culture avidly promoted by the supposed custodians of the integrity of the game.

“Surely they need to accept there is a huge clash between their rules and the culture that surrounds the modern game, where anyone who watches follows football on TV or in the stadia is bombarded by marketing, advertising and sponsorship by betting companies, and where much of the coverage now... is intertwined with the broadcasters’ own gambling interests... If the FA is serious about tackling gambling I would urge it to reconsider its own dependence on the gambling industry.”

Barton was correct to highlight the link between media and gambling. Gambling became established as an industry in the mid-19th century thanks to three technological innovations: the railroad made it easy to transport horses to big race meetings, the telegraph allowed racetracks to transmit the results to off-track betting offices around the country, and the press relayed information about odds and form to a mass audience that no longer had to be physically present at the track to follow and participate.

The ancient symbiosis between gambling and media is closer and more lucrative than ever in the age of Ray Winstone’s disembodied head challenging you to Bet Now in every ad break.

Barton is on weaker ground when he argues that there is a genuine clash between the FA doing a sponsorship deal with a gambling company, while also banning players for gambling. Remember that the FA do not forbid all gambling by footballers, they say only that footballers are not allowed to gamble on football, since that threatens the integrity of the game.

The real question is whether it’s unethical to accept sponsorship money from gambling companies. During the week, Arsene Wenger seemed to say that he believed it was.

“On every advert you have bet here and there,” Wenger said. “You cannot be surprised if people bet. You incite people to bet. Out of 100 people five get addicted. If you don’t want that problem, you forbid betting, which I support completely in society.”

Wenger can’t feel that strongly about it, or he might at some point have objected to Arsenal signing sponsorship deals with gambling companies (they currently have five).

And it’s hard to think he really believes that forbidding gambling would end gambling, any more than forbidding drugs has ended drug use. Since people will continue to gamble, the challenge is to find the least-worst way for gambling to exist: ceding control to criminals is probably not the answer.

“I find it immoral that people study, go to universities and work day and night, and then somebody who does nothing plays the right numbers and win £100million,” Wenger said. “How can you defend that? Is it moral when a nurse in hospital doesn’t earn any money and the guy who plays the right numbers wins £100 million? If you want to encourage a society based on merit, it is indefensible.”

It was curious that the issue Wenger highlighted was the immoral gains made by the winners. Most people, if you asked them to explain what was wrong with gambling, would probably make a case based on the harm suffered (and inflicted) by the far larger number of chronic losers, or gambling addicts as they are now usually called.

But since he has that problem with rewards that haven’t really been earned, you wonder why his disapproval should be so narrowly focused on this kind of gambling. There are many struggling nurses in London, but there’s also a lot of disposable income sloshing about, or Arsenal couldn’t charge so much for corporate hospitality packages. This is a city where the number one industry is financial speculation.

The resemblance between the speculations of the stock market and the gambling den have been obvious for centuries. As Redmond Barry argues in Thackeray's 1844 novel, Barry Lyndon, “They cry fie now upon men engaged in play; but I should like to know how much more honourable THEIR modes of livelihood are than ours. The broker of the Exchange who bulls and bears, and buys and sells, and dabbles with lying loans, and trades on State secrets, what is he but a gamester?” Barry is himself a degenerate gambler, of course, but as Joey Barton might agree, it takes one to know one.