On Wednesday Burnley midfielder, and former Rangers player, Joey Barton was banned from all football activity for 18 months by the FA for offences relating to betting. Barton admitted placing over 1,200 bets on a range of outcomes, from the correct score to the first goalscorer. Crucially, he placed at least five bets on matches that he himself was involved in.
There can be little doubt that Barton has acted improperly and that a ban of considerable length was the FA’s only option. He opined in a statement, released simultaneously with the news of the decision, that the 18 month sentence was harsh and that a “less controversial player” would not have received the same hard-line stance.
Each observer will have his or her own views on what they deem to be the appropriate punishment for the crime committed. What is evident is that the FA and English leagues, along with their counterparts here in Scotland, are as equally intent on dishing out the harshest possible sanctions to players breaking rules on betting as they are happy to accept tens of millions of pounds each year from the gambling industry.
Gambling is quite literally everywhere you look in the sport. Sky Bet are the sponsors of the English Football League. Half of the 20 English Premier League clubs’ main shirt sponsors are bookmakers or online casinos. Then there is the Premiership through to League Two in Scotland, all sponsored by Ladbrokes, the Betfred League Cup, the William Hill Scottish Cup. Joey Barton was charged with betting offences by the SFA in October 2016 in the William Hill Main Stand at Hampden.
Sky and BT Sport show 168 live EPL matches per season. The very first advert of each commercial break of these productions is always one of the following: Ray Winstone’s giant face and intolerable cockney twang; Paddy Power with a well-thought-out promotion – funny at first but grating after the 3765th time; or my personal pet peeve, the Ladbrokes Life Lads – a nauseating group of pals who bet differently, all with repulsive nicknames like Generous John and The Professor, perpetuating the school of thought that it is no longer sufficient to simply enjoy watching football anymore, for the full experience you have to “Bet in-play, naaow!”
Bookmakers don’t stop there. There is a collective culture on Twitter to post hyperbolic praise towards almost every team if and when the opportunity arises. Bet365 are the worst offenders of this, highlighted admirably at most turns by @oldfirmfacts1. A closer look at the replies these accounts send punters and you’ll see ‘mate’, ‘pal’ and ‘buddy’ a lot, trying too hard at times to be everyone’s friend.
You see the real face of bookies in instances like the custom bet that was placed with BetVictor which included Edinson Cavani hitting the woodwork for PSG against Barcelona. When this happened and the punter enquired as to why he hadn’t received his winnings, BetVictor claimed he did not hit the post as under their rules, the ball had to come back into play, and not out for a goal kick or corner as was the case. After some heavy pressure, the company relented and paid the gentleman his winnings.
So what does this have to do with Joey Barton and other professional footballers?
Footballers are very vulnerable to gambling addiction. As a compulsive gambler in recovery, I have two main enemies: time and money. Give me too much of either and I will paint you a picture of destruction. Professional footballers have more of these two assets than 95 per cent of the population. It’s proven disastrous for many footballers in the past. Eidur Gudjohnsen revealed he had gambling debts of £6 million. Other notable players who have been open about their problems include Mathew Etherington, Colin Hendry and Michael Chopra.
As with any addiction, the inherent character flaw resides in the individual. It is up to each man or woman to decide if they have a problem and if they want to stop gambling. But are football’s governing bodies doing enough to help any of the players they have a duty of care to protect? If sporting integrity is paramount and no active footballer is allowed to place a single bet on any football match, doesn’t the sport have an obligation to make a greater effort to distance itself from the gambling culture?
Indeed, in not offering sufficient help to players like Gudjohnsen with his monumental debts, aren’t they leaving the sport open to compromise, the very thing they are claiming to fight with the very strict punishment handed to Barton? It’s not outwith the realm of possibility that a player with gambling debts in the millions would be targeted by the shady world of unofficial bookmakers with an offer of ‘do this for us and we’ll do this for you’.
Written by Grant Cameron (@grantybear)