Lack of ball control: Gambling addiction among football players
Earlier this month, ex-England footballer Kenny Sansom made the news after he was found homeless sleeping on a park bench following his self-admitted addictions to both gambling and alcohol. Gambling by footballers is nothing new of course. Back in 2006, the media lapped up the story that Wayne Rooney allegedly ran up gambling debts of £700,000 with the Goldchip betting company. At the time, the Government’s (then) Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, warned the England team footballers not to bet on World Cup matches endorsing the decision by football’s world governing body (FIFA) to outlaw players betting on the tournament. Today’s blog briefly looks at the issue of gambling addiction amongst footballers and whether it is an issue that clubs must take seriously.
So why do professional footballers gamble? Gambling and football have always been inextricably linked. Whether it is the football pools, a punt on who will win the FA Cup final, or a spread bet on the number of yellow cards to be handed out during the next World Cup, gamblers love betting on the outcome of football matches. But there are also good psychological reasons that encourage top players to gamble – particularly if looked at from the player’s perspective.
It is the night before a big match. Premiership players are confined to staying in a hotel. No sex. No alcohol. No junk food. Basically, no access to all the things they love. To pass time, footballers may watch television, play cards, or play a video game believing these are ‘healthier’ for them. The difficulty in detecting gambling addictions is likely to be one factor in its growth over other forms of addiction – especially as many players are more health-conscious and the testing for alcohol and drugs is now more rigorous. However, any of these ‘healthier’ activities when taken to excess can cause problems. England goalkeeper David James once claimed his loss of form was because of his round-the-clock video game playing. In short, the top players are very well paid and inevitably have lots of time on their hands. By their own admission, ex-Arsenal and England players like Paul Merson and Tony Adams lost millions of pounds gambling and regularly attended Gamblers Anonymous along with treatment for other addictions to alcohol and cocaine. Paul Merson claims to have lost £7 million to gambling and cocaine, and was still having severe gambling problems over a decade after his football career had ended.
It would also seem to be the case that there is a psychosocial subculture of gambling by footballers. The ex-England striker Kevin Phillips claimed that when he was part of Kevin Keegan’s England squad (as a Sunderland player in the 1990s), he was alienated by the other players for not taking part with the other players in the team’s pre-match gambling activities. Phillips’ ex-strike partner at Sunderland, Niall Quinn, knows only too well the inherent dangers of gambling. While playing for Arsenal he regularly lost his whole week’s wages at the bookmakers inside an hour of getting it. Whilst he was never truly out of control, he did have to re-mortgage his flat to pay off gambling debts. Quinn says he was lucky not to be paid the kind of wages players get today as he would have lost more. Ex-footballer (and now TV and radio football pundit) Steve Claridge claimed in his autobiography to have blown £1m on gambling, while the ex-Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie became addicted after placing bets for team-mates.
More recently, there have been a number of high profile cases of top footballers with gambling problems. These include the West Ham and Stoke winger Matthew Etherington and ex-England striker David Bentley who was reported to be placing up to 100 bets a day on everything from horses and greyhounds to online poker and bingo. Another high profile case to hit the headlines was Icelandic ex-Chelsea player Eidur Gudjohnsen who was alleged to be in £6 million in debt because of his gambling despite a £3 million-a-year wages at his current club Monaco. While he was at Manchester United, the Dutch striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy said that “obscene” wages were fuelling constant gambling by other players in the team.
I am often asked by the press to comment on why footballers gamble and whether they are more susceptible to gambling addiction. One player I was asked to comment on was ex-England striker Michael Owen (whose friend Stephen Smith – somewhat ironically – ran the company that Wayne Rooney ran up his debts with). It was clear that to me that Owen did not have a gambling problem and could easily afford to lose the amounts he was alleged to have lost. However, it could be argued that he and players like Wayne Rooney are role models for many teenagers. As a psychologist I have some concerns about the messages that high profile footballers send out about gambling to vulnerable individuals. Teenagers are less likely than adults to be able to make informed choices because they are young and impressionable. Footballers who gamble are unconsciously giving out the message to adolescents that gambling is something that goes hand-in-hand with being a top footballer.
Tony Adams alleged that every football club in England has a problem with gambling addiction. This was one of the primary reasons why set up his own charity (Sporting Chance) to help footballers with addiction problems. At present, this appears to be the main source of help for footballers who are problem gamblers, although Gamblers Anonymous also appears to be another popular outlet for help. Press reports from the mid-2000s indicated that up to 60 Premiership football players were being treated for gambling addiction. Adams alleged that some players – despite being on vast wages – even stole from their children’s savings to cover their losses. He said footballers that were gambling addicts “lose their self-respect and before you know where they are, they are nicking money out of their kids’ savings to have a bet. It is something about which clubs need to be aware. It is difficult to trace – but it can cause a lot of damage.” Peter Kay, the Chief Executive of the Sporting Chance clinic claims that footballer’s passion for football predisposes them to gambling problems. He said:
“If you have the kind of driven, obsessive character that it takes to become a professional footballer, with that tunnel-vision, then you are predisposed. I have not come across a football club where gambling does not play a part in the players’ lives. If a player is dropped from the team, this can often lead to depression and a craving for the buzz of football – sometimes found in gambling. It is acceptable to gamble. There have always been famous gamblers in football and for most it is enjoyable. But for around 10 per cent it is an addiction”.
Although the English Football Association has strict rules on gambling by footballers, these are not a deterrent to gamble and as outlined above, there are many reasons why footballers may gamble to excess compared to other less ‘healthy’ behaviours like excessive drinking or drug taking. It is a shame that addictions to drugs and alcohol tend to generate more sympathy among the general public as many people view gambling as a self-inflicted vice. But gambling to excess can be just as destructive because of the huge financial consequences. Therefore, time rich and money rich young footballers need to be educated about the potential downsides of excessive and/or high stakes gambling. Through the work of the Sporting Chance clinic, this is beginning to happen, but as footballers’ wages continue to increase, gambling is one activity that may place an increasing role in the lives of the players.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Adams, T. and Ridley, I. (1999), Addicted. London: Harper Collins.
BBC Online News (2007). Etherington in gambling admission. February 24. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/teams/w/west_ham_utd/6392549.stm (Last accessed December 10, 2009).
Burt, J. (2003). Adams charity claims gambling addiction is rife. The Independent, January 16. Located at; http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/adams-charity-claims-gambling-addiction-is-rife-601846.html (Last accessed December 10, 2009).
Chaytor, R. (2008), Paul Merson gambles away £300,000 home. Daily Mirror, November 1. Located at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2008/01/11/paul-merson-gambles-away-300-000-home-115875-20281696/ (Last accessed December 10, 2009).
Claridge, S. & Ridley, I. (2000). Tales From The Boot Camps. London: Orion.
Griffiths, M.D. (2006). All in the game. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, July (Issue 28), p. 67.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction among footballers: causes and consequences. World Sports Law Report, 8(3), 14-16.
Menezes, J. de (2013). Former England star Kenny Sansom admits he’s ‘homeless, a drunk and sleeping on a park bench’. The Independent, August 1. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/news-and-comment/former-england-star-kenny-sansom-admits-hes-homeless-a-drunk-and-sleeping-on-a-park-bench-8741512.html
Merson, P. (1996). Rock Bottom. London: Bloomsbury.
Peake, A. (2009). Eidur down £6M: Gambling has ace Gudjohnsen owing two banks. The Sun, December 3, p.25.
Winter, H. (2008). David Bentley had to fight gambling addiction. Daily Telegraph, April 10. Located at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/columnists/henrywinter/2296852/David-Bentley-had-to-fight-gambling-addiction.html (Last accessed December 10, 2009).
Posted on August 20, 2013, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Fame, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Obsession, Online gambling, Popular Culture, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged Alcohol addiction, Cocaine addiction, Football betting, Football gambling, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Problem gambling, Sporting Chance Clinic, Sports gambling. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.