There’s no doubt that the scale of gambling within football, be it players, managers or coaching staff, is on the increase.
Some will say that betting has always been part and parcel of the sport, it’s just being more widely reported now because the landscape is changing as far as addictive behaviours and mental health issues are concerned – more footballers are speaking out because it is more acceptable to do so.
However, there is clearly still a stigma attached to having a gambling problem in football, and that certainly isn’t aided by the huge fines and suspensions that are levied on those who do publicly confess to their woes.
Perhaps the idea for a ‘gambling amnesty’, proposed by the chief executive of Scottish Premier League outfit Hamilton Academical, is rather shrewd then.
That has been mooted by Colin McGowan to help tackle the problem – allowing players in Scottish professional football to come forward for treatment, with full anonymity and a suspension of any ban for three years.
It follows the banning of Hamilton manager Brian Rice, who was given a ten-match suspension for breaching betting rules.
And in February, the Daily Record reported that one unnamed international player had been secretly banned from football for eight matches due to his out-of-control gambling.
The former Rangers player racked up huge debts, according to the report, and the decision to keep his identity a secret was made due to fears over his mental wellbeing.
What Would the Gambling Amnesty Involve?
McGowan’s plan is to allow anyone in football with problematic behaviour to get confidential treatment without having their private life dragged through the press.
The amnesty would, presumably, encourage more players to seek help, as any normal suspension for beaching betting rules would be suspended for three years.
As part of McGowan’s proposal, any individual that ‘self-reported’ having bet on matches or even having an open account with a bookmaker would be handed a suspended 16-game ban by the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and no financial penalty.
The idea is that they would get the help they need and their chances of reoffending would be reduced, rather than them being banned but continuing with their addictive behaviour.
McGowan, a close friend of Brian Rice’s, said:
“The main reason for this is regardless of which country of the world you are in, it would appear no footballing body proactive in catching offenders.
“That said, on the mental health side there are those caught up in the horrors of addictive gambling, and the personal and social consequences that comes with this disease/illness of addiction.
“Obviously I hope you understand that these proposals and ideas are put forward mainly for the protection of the players and ultimately for the benefit to their families,” he commented. “They also without doubt protect the integrity of the game.”
Could the Gambling Amnesty Realistically be Introduced?
As is the case in most areas of footballing governance, it is FIFA who are in charge of creating rules and regulation from a ‘top down’ perspective.
But while they set the rules regarding the prohibition of gambling in football, it is actually individual football authorities that decide on the level of punishment.
So, in theory at least, the SFA, the Football Association in England any other governing body for that matter could introduce their own gambling amnesty.
Problem Gambling in Scottish Football
There have been a number of high-profile cases of problem gambling in Scottish football of late.
The Daily Record broke the story of the unnamed star, a former international, who was given anonymity, such were his issues.
And then there was the case of Brian Rice, who ‘self reported’ and admitted breaching betting regulations on a number of occasions.
“This decision was one of the hardest I have had to take, but in a way also the easiest,” Rice said. “I have made no secret of the fact that I have struggled with the disease that is gambling addiction in the past.”
He was given a ten-match ban, with five of those suspended for good behaviour, after a flurry of bets across a five-year period.
After the news broke, Colin McGowan reported that a number of current and former players had contacted him and Hamilton to discuss their own gambling problems.
Later in interview, Rice commented:
“I think there’s a gambling culture in Scotland, a gambling culture in football, and it’s something we need to do something about.”
BBC Scotland’s Chris McLaughlin spoke to one unnamed SPFL player who claimed that betting is taking place ‘in pretty much every dressing room’, and that some players were even betting on themselves and teammates to get booked in a specific game.
Inside Knowledge and Boredom to Blame
Of course, it’s not just in Scottish football where there is a gambling problem.
The issue is rife south of the border too. Joey Barton’s career was essentially ended by an 18-month ban from football, handed out after he admitted placing more than 1,000 bets in a seven-year spree.
Daniel Sturridge also admitted breaching betting rules and was fined £75,000, while the likes of Paul Merson and Matthew Etherington have spoken of how their gambling debts forced them to the brink of suicide.
Gambling exists beyond football too. The former Welsh rugby union star turned coach Rob Howley was banned from the sport for 18 months after admitting betting on more than 1,000 games – including some featuring the Wales side he was coaching.
Stephen Lee was banned from snooker for 12 years after being found guilty of a string of betting and match fixing breaches, while major winning golfer Phil Mickelson has run up multi-million dollar gambling debts in the past.
Often, it’s the same reasons that are given. Addictive personalities is obviously a trait of a problem gambler, but then you have often young me with too much time and money on their hands – hence the boredom factor coming into play.
And, of course, these are individuals that know their chosen sports inside and out – it’s no wonder some try to profit from that knowledge, whether they are allowed to or not.
Hopefully, common sense prevails. Colin McGowan’s proposal for a gambling amnesty makes sense, and while we should of course punish those who break the rules where there is a psychological compulsion to commit a act surely a dash of compassion is the smartest way to communicate with the accused.