Oisin McConville: Sham National was a desperate, shameful act by gambling industry

Oisin McConville: Sham National was a desperate, shameful act by gambling industry
Watching the Virtual Grand National on a TV last Saturday. Many families will now struggle to put food on the table because of a problem gambler within the household.

THIS article has caused me a few sleepless nights, I’ve written, I’ve deleted, written again, thought better of it and eventually written it while feeling the blood inside me boiling.

My anxiety initially focused on the backlash, then it turned to the worry that I wouldn’t have the vocabulary to express my complete dismay at current events but I ended up deciding to take a run at it.

While the world as we know it falls apart, at a time when we can’t embrace the ones we love and while we are in the grip of a pandemic where nothing operates the way it once did, the bookmaking industry powers on through.

The truth is that while everyone else toed the line, the racing and bookmaking industry flew in the face of that. 

It started when 251,684 people congregated in Cheltenham. The mantra was that ‘the show must go on.’ They ate, they drank and they mingled like it was 1999. 

Not surprisingly, there was no direction from the British government nor was there anything from the leadership on this side of the Irish Sea when we let the considerable number of Irish reintegrate into our communities causing both panic and the epitome of mixed messaging.

Meanwhile, up and down the country bookmakers shops were wedged with wide-eyed punters. There was no social distancing in operation and certainly no social responsibility.

Have a good look at the reporting on this, the derision was sporadic and the negativity cautionary at best. The unyielding power of the racing industry has been seen in all its glory in the last few weeks. 

Then we have the bookmaking industry, an industry regulating itself, an entity completely policed by themselves. Is it any wonder we are third in the world per capita in how much we spend on gambling?

The more I say that out loud the more mind-boggling it becomes. Naturally people will feel that I’ve a vested interest, maybe even an axe to grind, given my past. 

But just to be clear, I hold none of my life choices and subsequent spiral into addiction at the door of the bookies. I have no problem laying my gambling addiction firmly at my own door.

When pubs closed their doors, there was a collective sigh of relief from families all across the country with problem drinkers. 

Yes, alcohol is still available in shops and off-licences but there is already evidence that the closing of pubs has been the catalyst for people to stop drinking and get some of the advice and help they need.

Oisin McConville: Sham National was a desperate, shameful act by gambling industry

However, this is even more challenging now as there is no intake to residential treatment centres while fellowship meetings are relying almost exclusively on online gatherings.

Respite is so important for those people in addiction for sure but perhaps more so for their families. In the past number of weeks there has been a surge in reports of domestic violence. 

Simply put, there is no escape for families living with an addict in a lockdown.

ON Friday, I received a raft of phone calls, not just from addicts but from family members telling me that bookmakers were taking bets on a virtual Grand National. 

And a delightful PR spin on it added that all proceeds would be going towards the HSE/NHS.

So for those not quite up to speed with the way the gambling industry works, let me explain it as simply as possible. 

The system thrives by being in our consciousness all of the time, hence the bombardment of social media, email, Snapchat and TV advertising that is now at saturation point.

The idea behind a virtual Grand National was to get them back in our heads at a time when there are so many more things to be concerned with.

ITV televised the ‘race’ while it was carried on numerous news bulletins later that evening. 

Let’s face it, there is no better time to be on a news feature as for many people news is now on 24/7 in homes. 

So another gold star goes to the bookmaking marketing department for delivering maximum exposure with limited cost (and don’t forget the random act of kindness thrown in).

I’d view all of this differently.

The way I see it, this was another act of a desperate industry, clambering for exposure when people are at their most vulnerable. 

Oisin McConville: Sham National was a desperate, shameful act by gambling industry

But they don’t need to worry about being held accountable by government officials because they can do whatever they wish, because they are in the unique position of policing their own industry.

So let’s think about those desperately needed funds for the under-pressure frontline staff. 

On the face of it more great PR and a timely financial boost for healthcare but the reality is that many families will now struggle to put food on the table because of a problem gambler within the household.

I can give you practical evidence of a family with a gambler. This man, a father of four, had €50 on the outcome of the sham national, the bet lost and this man goes chasing his losses. 

The chapter ends with a loss of €1,150, having gambled every penny in the household on American racing.

Too embarrassed to ask the family to bail him out for the umpteenth time, he turns to a local charity and receives a €25 food parcel to keep them going until they receive a €350 payment from social welfare. The struggle then will be to keep the compulsive gambler away from that money.

The knock-on impacts of this don’t end with money. Sadly, domestic violence is often another result of such scenarios. 

And where do you think the victims of domestic violence end up? At Accident and Emergency or the local GP surgery which puts more pressure on a health system already on its knees.

Gambling addicts have the highest rate of suicide of all the addictions. It is a silent killer in this country at this time these people are more vulnerable than ever. 

So rather than a PR triumph, the computer-generated race may have put them back in our consciousness, but in reality, it was a desperate act of a desperate industry above reproach.

We are still using the same laws that we did in the 1950s to regulate these people with no sign or desire for change from the top.

So the next time you see the headline about the good old bookmaking firm raising money for frontline staff, remember they are adding to those very people’s burden in so many other ways.

All involved should collectively hang their heads in shame.

Stay safe.

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