GPA must prepare for a gambling epidemic

Gambling has received the makeover of the century.

In the adverts, the punters are always having a good time, and in the press releases, they are always winning.

A strange thing has been happening to some GAA squads during the past few years. For no obvious reason, players have started to go AWOL. All of a sudden, they just vanish from the team. One day they are there. The next day, they’re gone. After discreet enquiries, an off- the-record briefing resolves the mystery. We are told ‘Johnny’ has a chronic gambling problem and is receiving treatment. Those unaware that a gambling epidemic is swiftly heading our way should be under no illusions. Gambling is the new booze.

A couple of a years ago a friend of mine who had a gambling problem spent four weeks in the White Oaks Rehabilitation Centre outside Derry. White Oaks provides treatment for drink, drugs and gambling addiction.

Bear in mind that treatment centres in Ireland used to be the preserve of alcoholics. When ‘Colm’ was in White Oaks, he was one of four gamblers, a quarter of the total intake at that time.

GPA chief executive Dessie Farrell has already highlighted the scale of the problem facing the country. Dealing with players on a daily basis, Farrell’s work in the Accident and Emergency Department has led him to conclude that problem gambling in the GAA is “severe” and “widespread”.

And Farrell warned the worst has yet to come: “They’re all coming out of the woodwork now with serious problems and the issues that stem from gambling, like significant debt and the upset in the home. There have been a lot of cases of that.”

Of course, it not just players who are affected. Most communities claim their own horror story. Marriages are collapsing and families are being torn apart. Spouses are left to deal with debt, loans and unpaid bills. It’s a living nightmare. Financial bankruptcy is one hell. Moral bankruptcy can be equally catastrophic. As the addiction takes grip, fine upstanding men degenerate into barefaced liars.

So, why are more people getting addicted to gambling? More people than ever before are gambling. This leads to a second question: why? For starters, it has become much easier to place a bet. You used to need a docket and a bookie’s office. Newcomers to these establishments were usually treated like the strangers who entered saloons in old westerns. With the exception of Grand National Day, most people stayed well clear.

Nowadays, it’s now possible to gamble 24/7. Punters can have a telephone or online accounts and can gamble on anything.

The image of gambling has transformed beyond all recognition. I know plenty of hard-drinking, womanising people who would have taken the moral high ground when it came to betting on a horse. But after billions of Euro spent on PR and advertising, gambling has received the makeover of the century. Today, it is considered a form of recreation. In the adverts, the punters are always having a good time, and in the press releases, they are always winning.

Of course, advertising doesn’t force people to become addicts. In the same way that most people can drink and not become alcoholics. But does that mean the gambling industry should be allowed to sponsor and advertise wherever they please? Interestingly, when this debate is held about alcohol abuse we are repeatedly informed by government agencies that we should learn to drink like the French.

Yet, when it is pointed out that alcohol advertising is banned in France, there has never been the same urgency from policy-makers to follow their example. And this is why the GAA needs to hold its own discussion on gambling addiction. There is no point waiting to take direction from governments who take theirs from lobbyists.

The GAA should take the lead. First and foremost, the Association needs to decide if it will continue to accept sponsorship from bookies. Óisín McConville was the first high profile GAA player to publicise his addiction. On Sunday, he played for a Crossmaglen team sponsored by a bookmaker.

Does that not seem slightly incongruous? No matter what action the GAA takes, the GPA must decide how it can provide the best help for those unfortunate souls looking for support.

They should seek the advice of gamblers who have confronted and overcome their addiction. It’s incredible how ‘experts’ refuse to ask the advice of the real experts. My friend ‘Colm,’ who no longer gambles, would dismiss education programmes and counselling services as a well-intentioned waste of money. Information will not stop anyone from developing a problem. Counsellors provide a shoulder to cry on, but no solution.

On leaving White Oaks, ‘Colm’ joined Gamblers’ Anonymous and attended regular meetings. Speak to any person recovering from a serious gambling problem and they will usually have followed a similar path.

‘Colm’ is a good luck story. A life, marriage and family have been saved. But hundreds of hard luck stories are coming.

The GPA will be doing the country a huge service if it can dispense good advice to those seeking their help in the not too distant future.

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