Chasing the High: Football’s Ugly Addiction

A recent interview with Matthew Etherington has brought back to light an issue that is often hidden in football’s dark underbelly – gambling. It is not something that is at the forefront of discussion within football and as a result the problem of gambling among footballers has been described as an epidemic. It seems unthinkable that a professional footballer could gamble away their wages each week, but Etherington summed it up perfectly – “The cash that footballers earn and the time they have on their hands, it is a recipe for disaster”.

Etherington isn’t the only high profile case of a professional footballer falling into trouble with gambling. There are many other examples which come from the very top of the game including Paul Merson, Michael Chopra, Dominic Matteo, David Bentley, Dietmar Hamann, and even Wayne Rooney, to name just a few.

Many players who are in financial trouble with their debts have had to resort to unusual methods in order to improve their situation. For example, Michael Chopra admitted that he only signed with Sunderland so he could get a £250k signing on fee and Etherington was given a £300k loan by West Ham United as he would routinely bet his wages on the coach trips between games.

It is easy to understand why gambling addiction is more of an issue for footballers now than it was and that is because of the huge amounts of money that are given to players at a young age. The life of a young footballer is one full of temptation and negative influences and it is reaching the stage where it is not even a surprise to hear about a young starlet hitting the town and winding up laying face-down on the tarmac a la Jack Grealish. Although, many believe that this sort of activity is rife in the modern game and there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than photos of a footballer’s night out broadcast on social media.

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The main reason that a lot of players state as the main reason it is incredibly easy to bet on anything and everything through online and mobile betting. Keith Gillespie described betting without physically handing money over the counter as “just talking numbers” and Dominic Matteo went as far as to say that the introduction of mobile technology into betting was the cause of all his problems. This is one of the main issues mentioned by people from all walks of life who suffer from gambling addiction and when a footballer has seemingly endless amounts of money in his account – it is never going to be a pleasant outcome.

One solution that many footballers have resorted to in order to solve their gambling problems is Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic. The clinic opened in 2000 following Adams’ own recovery from alcoholism and he felt that a clinic devoted to the specialist cases of amateur and professional sports-people was a facility that was desperately needed. The facility itself aims to help those attending with all sorts of different issues including addictions and disorders – but it is a very small facility, with very limited capacity.

A study conducted by Natcen on behalf of the Professional Players’ Federation found that out of 350 interviewed footballers and cricketers that 6.1% were problem gamblers, which is three times as high as among the general male population. In addition, a further 12% were labelled to be ‘at risk of becoming problem gamblers’. Further research has also found that problems with gambling off the pitch can lead to poor form in matches and the feeling of gambling was compared by the professionals interviewed as like the high you would get from a drug.

So, why is it that gambling addiction among professional footballers is not taken as seriously or as well-documented as other addictions? For one, it is very difficult to spot a gambling addict and they are often likely to be in denial that they have a problem at all as it is so widespread throughout the modern game. Football also has incredibly tight ties to many betting companies – every weekend a player will be constantly reminded of the availability of betting and many will walk out with the name of a betting company stamped across their chest.

In order for football to start moving forward in this regard and start offering help to the growing numbers of individuals then there has to be some serious changes. At the moment, the majority of fans, players, and managers do not see gambling as an issue within the game and this means it is impossible for anything to be done about it. Gambling addiction in professional footballers goes far deeper than just young players with more money than sense. There have been calls for a blanket ban on all forms of betting for professional footballers but just like any other addict, a problem gambler will find a way to get that high. The work of the Professional Players’ Federation and The Sporting Chance Clinic have made excellent progress in identifying and helping to solve the issues of many individuals, but until there is proper legislation that stops this issue of problem gambling at the source – it is going to continue to be a growing problem because as wages and bonuses go up, so will the gambling stakes.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Ryan Hyde.

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