Kicking Out: GAA gambling ban a step in the right direction
TO read the story of Davy Glennon’s battle with a gambling addiction is to read Oisin McConville’s, is to read Niall McNamee’s. Each of them harrowing. Each of them the same but different.
The Galway hurler’s story is becoming all-too familiar. Annie Power at Cheltenham in 2015. Leading coming to the final fence and £40million set to be taken from the bookies’ pockets.
And then it falls. Glennon was set to collect €58,000 had Ruby Walsh stayed up, but instead he was €2,000 poorer. He had lost €10,000 the week previous.
It threatened to destroy his sporting talent. He started the 2015 Leinster final but lasted just 24 minutes. His head was all over the place, wrecked by growing gambling debts and after being hauled off in that game, he hit rock bottom the following week, contemplating suicide before he sought help from his parents.
The toll of his personal struggle strikes more of a chord than the gargantuan amount of money - £172m last year - gambled on the festival in total.
Glennon’s story, and those of McConville and McNamee, have been powerful tools in encouraging young men to unburden themselves by talking about gambling.
But we are still a long, long way from the finish line.
Sport has played a massive part in the rise of the gambling culture, which has taken Ireland in a vice grip over the last decade in particular.
The north has the highest proportion of ‘problem gamblers’ in the UK, almost five times more than in England.
More than €5billion is gambled now each year in the Republic, and almost half of that (€2.1bn) is lost by punters. Almost half those losses come from online betting, which has overtaken the traditional method of walking into the bookies’.
Statistics suggest that the difference in Irish gamblers and the rest is that we still think we can outsmart the bookie.
While a significant portion of the world’s two biggest betting markets – Australia and Singapore – comes from gaming machines and casino betting, the market here shows a very different pattern.
Of the average losses per resident adult, just over 10 per cent of Irish losses are as a result of gaming machines or casinos. What’s spent on lotteries is smaller than almost all of the other 14 countries that recorded the biggest gambling losses in 2016.
Irish money goes largely on online and traditional betting, the vast majority of which goes on sporting events.
And while you might think it’s better to try and predict the outcome of a live sporting event than play in an online casino, the losses stack up just the same.
Perhaps it’s to read Timmy Dalton’s story that best underlines the scale of the gambling problem in Ireland and the GAA.
Dalton scored 1-3 to help Tipperary to victory in the 2006 All-Ireland minor final. To the locals, his would be a name unforgotten but a knee injury sent him into a spiral that would prevent him becoming a senior All-Ireland winner and a household name around the country.
He, like thousands of others, fell into the black hole.
“We have text groups or WhatsApp groups and you have people constantly talking about prices of other teams, what’s a good bet, what teams have a good chance this weekend or what teams are missing players.
“I see it now, even with my club and different teams, where people are coming in at half-time or after matches, checking their phones and checking results.”
When he found himself in that spiral, his life unravelled. He lost his girlfriend of seven years and depression took hold before he eventually sought help after a decade.
He was off the inter-county scene by then and was just your average club hurler. His experience would not be untypical in the GAA, though not exclusive to it either.
Not everyone in the GAA gambles but in almost any club environment, there will be a group at training that you’ll hear discussing the odds and form on soccer, rugby, golf, tennis, NFL or racing, or they’ll have their own WhatsApp group as Dalton and his team-mates did.
And while inter-county players can feel isolated and lost, even in front of 80,000 people as McConville has described in the past, there is a support network now building around them that offers a way out.
The GPA, for all its ills, cannot take enough credit for its work in battling the problem. Their counselling services have literally saved lives.
But that only accounts for a very small percentage of the population and the reality is that the control the governments on both sides of the border have over the spread of problem gambling is almost non-existent.
As we saw with the homeless crisis last year, the GAA’s social conscience lives on. It’s not the organisation’s responsibility to fix these problems but the GAA can have a massive impact on young people in Ireland, and it should absolutely help when and where it can.
That’s why the decision Congress made on Saturday to ban betting companies from entering into any sponsorship agreements within the GAA was so easy, but so important.
It will not curb the rise of gambling on its own. The media’s cosy relationship with the gambling industry is one of the first things in need of examination.
The number of markets available to bet on has grown exponentially. You can put money on the team to score first or RTÉ’s man of the match selection, and just about everything else in between.
We’re not quite so far down the line in terms of the aggressive advertising you would see on Sky Sports during a Premier League game but Ireland’s gambling debt suggests the problem is bad enough as it is.
The GAA are doing their bit but they will not bring about the solution. That will, sadly, not come until many more lives are ruined or lost, and the weight of economic greed is balanced out by the value of those lives.