It was recently announced that Brian Rice, head coach of Scottish Premiership club Hamilton Academical, had reported himself to the Football Association. In a statement, Rice explained that over each of the past five seasons he had broken the governing body’s rules on gambling. (To protect the game’s integrity, those employed in professional football are not permitted to bet on matches.)
There is no suggestion of sinister foul play on Rice’s part. His bets did not involve his own team. Rice – like half a million other people in the UK – is afflicted by what he describes as “the horrible and isolating disease” of gambling addiction.
Both his club and the Scottish FA were rightly quick to praise Rice for his honesty and courage. And well they might. Football itself has become addicted to the riches offered by gambling firms desperate to get their hooks into the game’s fans.
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The Scottish Professional Football League is sponsored by Ladbrokes. The Scottish Cup by William Hill. Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers both have betting companies emblazoned across the front of their famous jerseys. South of the border, Sky Bet does the sponsorship honours for the English Football League. Ladbrokes were sponsors of the FA Cup until 2017, when the Football Association belatedly had second thoughts.
Ten of the 20 Premier League clubs in England are sponsored by gambling companies; in the championship that proportion shoots up to 17 of 24. So pervasive is the gambling companies’ “support” of football that we now have clubs’ grounds named in their honour. Stoke City’s bet365 Stadium is a prime example (heaven forbid that punters might take a single day off a year).
In August, Tottenham Hotspur announced they were severing ties with their official African betting partner, 1XBET. This followed an exposé that revealed the company was promoting gambling to children and allowing betting on children’s sport and cockfighting. Liverpool and Chelsea soon followed suit.
Earlier this month, Wayne Rooney returned to English football with Derby County. Money from the club’s sponsor, 32Red, helped secure the signature of England’s record goalscorer. Rooney has been allocated Derby’s number 32 shirt, which means hundreds of children will be wearing shirts carrying that number on the back.
Coincidence? Or a clever way around the agreement between football clubs and the gambling industry that precludes betting companies’ logos appearing on children’s replica shirts?
Laughably, 32Red rejects the very idea: “Other players also wear the number in the Championship – 32Red don’t have a trademark on the number 32.”
While it’s absolutely right to think of children, those already suffering from addiction are just as vulnerable. If you love football and are a problem gambler, the odds are stacked against you. Pitchside advertising boards, revolving like roulette wheels, prompt those attending matches, while viewers watching on television are bombarded during the advert breaks with tempting offers of the latest live odds. Many games during the FA Cup third round could only be watched live through Bet365’s website – provided you’d placed a bet or put a deposit in their account during the 24 hours before kick-off.
Disingenuous messages about responsible gambling – an oxymoron for an addict – or stopping when the fun stops are little more than a wink and a nod to the severity of the problem.
Brian Rice says he has suffered from his gambling addiction for 30 years. In 2013, having taken a coaching job in Qatar, he faced a jail sentence after borrowing £65,000 from the Qatari National Bank which he subsequently lost in an online casino. Unable to leave the country until this debt was settled, Rice raised the money by emailing his friends in football to ask for help.
According to the Daily Record, one email said: “I have had every thought imaginable, every thought. I’m terrified.”
Following Rice’s self-referral, the Scottish FA must now determine what action to take against him. A hearing is set for 30 January. One of the UK’s leading football podcasts solemnly relayed Rice’s history of addiction to its listeners before explaining the maximum potential penalty – a 16-match suspension and £100,000 fine.
No sooner had the segment ended than it cut to a banter-packed advert for the podcast’s sponsor, Paddy Power. Magnanimously on offer, a further free bet to customers with failed “accumulators”. One would hope this was an unfortunate accident, but it serves to underline how out of control the situation has become.
Football clubs, especially those outside the game’s elite, will argue that the money garnered from betting companies is not available elsewhere. They are right. For some, its immediate withdrawal would spell disaster. It will be complicated to unpick a relationship that has become almost symbiotic, but that doesn’t mean the government and football’s authorities shouldn’t try.
Football, at its beautiful best, serves as an escape from the pressures of everyday life for millions of people. For many, rather than escapism, the game has made itself their pathway to the misery and heartache of addiction. Football must remember that gambling needs the game much more than the game needs gambling.