Grappling with our gambling problem without the facts

The 2018 GAA season has begun in earnest. One of the key talking points is whether Galway will retain their All-Ireland hurling title, writes Jack Anderson.

Grappling with our gambling problem without the facts

On Sunday, they were given a fright by Antrim in the first round of the Allianz League at Pearse Stadium, eventually winning by three points.

Late substitutes made the difference for Galway, among them Davy Glennon.

In May 2016, Glennon spoke publicly to this newspaper about his gambling addiction, its harrowing personal toll and the torment, financial and emotional, it inflicted on his family.

It also affected his job, his co-workers and his employer.

Last month in court in Galway, after pleading guilty to more than 20 charges of theft from his former employer, he had sentencing adjourned, as a probation report is awaited.

Glennon, the judge noted, has received treatment and been an outstanding advocate and educator on gambling awareness in the past number of years.

The money he stole and used to feed his gambling habit has since been repaid but in the victim impact statement, a spokesperson for the company made it clear that the missing moneys nearly put it under, with the loss of 30 or so jobs.

That same week, the Galway Circuit Criminal Court also dealt with the case of Mark Hehir, a former Galway county footballer who pleaded guilty to the theft of €259,072 from his former

employers over a six-month period in 2016.

The money was again used to feed a gambling addiction, mainly online through Hehir’s smartphone.

Hehir’s family, who first raised concerns with the employers, has paid back some of the money. Hehir avoided jail but has been ordered to remain gambling-free, close all existing online betting accounts and continue to attend Hope House for counselling.

In Irish sport, GAA players have been the most vocal and open in talking about gambling. Oisin McConville is probably the best known but of course GAA players are not the only ones affected.

That is why Declan Lynch’s Ponzi Man, a fictionalised account of an Irish everyman struggling with his gambling demons, resonated with so many readers here and elsewhere.

In professional sport, gambling problems are once again in the news with Joey Barton speaking publicly about how his addiction ended with him currently serving a 13-month worldwide ban from football after admitting betting on 1,260 matches over a decade.

During a January BBC radio interview, Barton spoke about the prevalence of gambling in professional football estimating that, although it is banned by FA rules, he thinks about half of professional footballers bet on their own sport, usually through family intermediaries placing bets online.

How accurate Barton is about the extent of gambling in football is open to debate though he has a point when he highlights the inherent conflict of interest in sport’s relationship with gambling.

At the start of this season’s Premier League, nine of the 20 teams had gambling companies as shirt sponsors (the previous season it was 10).

The day that Barton gave his radio interview, there were matches in England in League One and Two and in the Scottish Premiership and Cup — all four competitions are sponsored by a gambling company.

Arguably, the best-written account of a footballer’s struggles with gambling can be found in former Manchester United and Newcastle winger Keith Gillespie.

In his 2013 biography, How not to be a Millionaire, the Northern Ireland international revealed how he lost over £7m in career earnings and was declared bankrupt, pockets emptied by gambling.

At one point in the book, and while at Newcastle, he recalls an away League Cup tie at Stoke. He recounts his disgust at how his teammate, defender Darren Peacock, who usually averaged a goal a season, struck a volley for Newcastle to go 4-0 up.

Gillespie bet heavily on a 3-0 and would not join the goal celebrations. In fact, such were his range of bets on the game, he’d have preferred an own goal by Peacock as a 3-1 result would have made him even more.

The conflicted link between gambling and sport will manifest itself clearly in the next six weeks as the build-up to the Cheltenham racing festival gets going.

Watch out on social media for the growing creep of ads offering you promotional bets and tempting you to reopen the account that has lain dormant since this time last year.

Outside the confines of sport, is gambling currently an issue for Irish society?

Anecdotally, the evidence from various treatment centres around the country is a very definitive yes but, in reality, we lack definitive statistics.

What we do know is that we bet and lose a lot – data in 2017 revealed that Ireland has the third highest per capita rate of annual gambling losses (€2.1 billion) in the world.

In the UK, by contrast, there are regular nationwide gambling prevalence surveys.

Interestingly, compared to other regions, the proportion of the population found to have the largest number of “problem gamblers” was in Northern Ireland. Prevalence of problem gambling there was nearly five times greater than in England.

Outside of NI, the rest of the UK has a relatively sophisticated gambling regime which was comprehensively updated in 2005.

The UK Gambling Commission regularly gathers research on current gambling issues and uses that evidence to recommend updates to the law.

In its 2017 annual report, the UK Gambling Commission highlighted the growing problem of thousands of children and young people losing money on web-based video games which allow them to trade virtual items won during the game for real money — so called “skin betting”.

The UK Gambling Commission found that 45% of 11-16 year-olds it surveyed were aware of “skin betting” and 11% of 11-16 year-olds had placed bets using in-game items.

Is skin betting a problem in Ireland and can it lead to problems with sports betting for such children into adulthood? Again, we don’t know.

Anecdotally, Mark Hehir mentioned in his court hearing that his introduction to online gambling began at school. Research from Australia suggests that the proliferation of gambling ads around TV sport has normalised it.

Three-quarters of Australian children who regularly watch sport on TV can name at least one sports betting brand; one in four children can name four or more brands.

In Ireland, we have limited gambling research and no gambling regulator.

Our legislation largely dates to the 1950s.

Although David Stanton, the minister of state with special responsibility for gambling, has recently given it a nudge of momentum, a Gambling Control Bill has been meandering through the Oireachtas since 2013.

Its slow progress is inexplicable given that all interested parties, including the betting industry, want to see our laws updated.

The impact that an Irish gambling regulator might have on Irish sport is for later debate.

For now, and on hearing from Davy Glennon and reading about Mark Hehir and others, this issue is no longer about individual Irish problem gamblers and is better described collectively as Ireland’s gambling problem.

Jack Anderson is a professor of law at the University of Melbourne and adjunct professor of law at the University of Limerick.

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