Picture the scene: popular footballer Paul Merson sits alone in a dark hotel room in Bolton, the only light being the flicker of an early 2000’s television set. He’s set to play for Villa the next day, but he can’t get one thing out of his mind - money. He needs to make a bet and he needs to make it now - will it be a couple of grand on the bowls or 20,000 on the outcome of the Miami Dolphins game? This time he might settle for ten grand on the first batter out at Lords. He shakes his head and starts to realise that this can’t go on. He thinks about putting his fingers in the hinges of the hotel door and slamming repeatedly, breaking the joints to bits so he can’t pick up the phone. If that doesn’t work, he’ll order a hammer and finish off the job himself. Paul didn’t want to bet that bad, but he couldn’t help it. Despite the extremity of this incident it didn’t change much. By 35, his £800,000 pension had already been cashed in - and Merson would blow millions on gambling. A problem he still suffers from to this very day.
Gambling addiction, my friends - is no joke. While gambling is a fun past time for many, it has become a crutch for others and has ruined many a life. Relationships don’t tend to work out if they are weighted in one direction and gambling - all too often - has the power in its relationship with the punters.
The argument over gambling’s influence in football restarted today after Burnley’s Joey Barton was handed an 18 month ban from the game for betting on football matches. With the visibility of bookmakers, gambling and betting in the modern game - the argument has emerged that this is hypocritical of the FA. Of course, it has to be argued that the FA are not jumping into moral waters in regards to their suspension of Joey Barton - they have set the rules and they are acting on them. Joey was in the wrong here and was in the wrong on over one thousand occasions when he bet on the result or events of a football match. Joey’s bets include betting on his own team to lose and betting on himself being the first scorer.
It is only when we look at the type of person that Joey Barton is and where he is from that we can see patterns emerge. The below is taken from Barton’s statement in response to his ban and the charge from the FA:
‘I grew up in an environment where betting was and still is part of the culture. From as early as I can remember my family let me have my own pools coupon, and older members of the family would place bets for me on big races like the Grand National. To this day, I rarely compete at anything without there being something at stake. Whether that’s a round of golf with friends for a few pounds, or a game of darts in the training ground for who makes the tea, I love competing. I love winning. I am also addicted to that. It is also the case that professional football has long had a betting culture, and I have been in the sport all my adult life.’
Barton is a working class lad - that much is obvious from his own writing and memoir in which he describes his upbringing. Barton’s career has mirrored the actions of a lot of the people I grew up around. Especially some of the violence. The Sunday League goalkeeper who was twice as big of me got jailed before a big match for glassing someone in a bar. You might remember Barton burning someone, or lashing out during a match. What is sorry to see is a number of outlets and journalists demonise Barton for actions which hinge on his background. It seems that addiction has become a stick for well-paid and well reputed members of society to batter the working class with. Barton messed up - he broke the rules. When we see his bets, they mirror a lot of the slips you’ll see around Villa Park before a game - £3 on this, £1 on that. The difference is, Barton was involved in what he was betting on and could afford to lose. Some people can’t. And they can’t stop.
We human beings have a severe problem with over indulgence. We aren’t temperate things, at all (and that attitude is almost never rewarded, but always mocked). We overindulge in love, community, alcohol. In fact, when we do something, we always go way too far. It’s not enough to game for thirty minutes - you need all night. One glass of prosecco isn’t gonna’ cut it tonight, you need four and more. Chicken wings? Forget having one. It’s all or nothing and if you’re going at full tilt, you are respected for living life. If you’re not, you’re a bore - aren’t you? There’s no middle ground where everything is ‘fine’, the house is either devoid or it is burning right the fuck down. We are creatures of habit and those habits can manifest into addictions.
There is no way to put it other than this: a gambling addiction is a serious mental health issue that requires treatment, not your judgement, nor punishment. Society desperately attempts to position itself as something that cares for and respects mental health - but it doesn’t. People in the year 2017 still very much have an attitude of ‘if it didn’t happen to me, it doesn’t happen’. We see that attitude in everything, in every dark corner of our world. Just because you can gamble responsibly doesn’t mean that everyone else can. Especially when commercialism and betting companies breed to spawn their own demonic offspring. As an Aston Villa fan following the team in the English Football League Championship, sorry, the Sky BetTM English Football League Championship, I’ve been exposed to gambling more than ever before. Of course, my team isn’t on TV much at all - but if yours is, you’ll see betting adverts around the ground. Your team will be sponsored by a betting agency, as will the opposition. It might even be on their shirt.It could sponsor a stadium, or even the television broadcast. During breaks in the programming, you’ll see an actor sell a betting company, while your favourite manager appears during another commercial for a betting company. In many instances, there will be no break between commercials, you’ll be told to do. How can this not have an effect? We know that adverts have a real effect on people, so we cannot dare say that these adverts and sponsorships are not making people bet. Ray Winstone reading out some odds live on air will affect some and not affect others. The fact that it will have an effect is worrying. In some cases, gambling is so ingrained into culture that betting will happen regardless - this can be safer as it might involve a wager with mates, but who’s to say? Betting isn’t just odds anymore, it has become a real tangible character in our lives, especially if you follow sport on television. In most cases it parades itself as some sort of end-of-level boss out of an Only Fools And Horses fantasy world, with a mockney accent, cigar, clutching a bunch of fivers in its fat paw. In other cases, it tries to present itself as a more sophisticated animal - using stats, suits and slicked hair to appear as your intelligent friend that has always done a bit better than you.
Has anyone reading this ever been to a betting shop? They are not happy places. That is because the people that it the industry preys on are stuck in there, hoping for a break. The others - who for whatever reason are free from the chains of betting can slip in and slip out, knowing that everything doesn’t hang on the accy they just placed. My bus stop was on Bull Street in Birmingham opposite Coral bookmakers and you don’t ever see someone leave with a huge smile on their face, more a look of ‘what am I doing?’. This is all thought out though, right down to their placement. In my city centre there are a chain of two betting shops placed in walking distance of two payday loan companies. That is for a reason. Right?
Football isn’t the realm of the working class anymore. What started out as an aristocratic past-time that was taken over by the many has known morphed into something in-between. It costs just enough to keep people out, but it can still have a huge effect. Can betting have a healthy relationship with football? Of course it can! There are plenty of vices in the world that we can enjoy with a temperate attitude. Betting simply goes overboard when it is presented to us on each and every occasion without fail, taking advantage of us and turning us into rather needful things. Betting companies have sponsored some amazing events without becoming the event, betting companies have given platforms for amazing football writers and their content. It is when betting companies use their wealth and scope to assist football and help it grow without an ulterior motive that this relationship succeeds.
There are plenty of questions to be asked here. How can we help gambling become a positive influence in the sport? What regulations need to be bought in to safeguard gamblers on low incomes? Do laws need to be changed? We certainly need to question if the constant presence of betting firms in live sport is necessary. On the other side of the coin, football needs money. If football isn’t in bed with gambling, it certainly is in bed with money. Tax evasion, golden handshakes, secret deals, bungs and dodgy transfers rule the day behind the scenes - it is only gambling that pokes its head above the parapet for people to take aim at. It isn’t just football that needs money - content providers, journalists, podcasters and bloggers need money and we’d all be massive hypocrites if we’d say know to the dollars or pounds of a betting company that wants to give us cash to fulfil our dreams. ESPN today laid off a number of staff, someone out there needs to be pumping money into content and if not gambling firms, then who?
Will gambling become a parasite that leeches off of our sport and its fans? Or can it become something else entirely, something that is a lot more positive? At this point, I just do not know. What does football want from gambling? What does gambling want from football? We all know the answer and that won’t change. What we can change is the stigma we have that surrounds gambling and encourage it to become a fun once-in-a-while pastime, not something that lives hinge on. That can be done with a few simple actions and some even simpler words. The world cannot champion mental health yet beat up on someone clearly struggling with addiction.