Insight: Troubled players put Scottish football in the dock over gambling

As another addict steps forward, many in Scottish football say a big shake-up in sponsorship and counselling is long overdue, writes Martyn McLaughlin
Hamilton manager Brian Rice speaks about his addiction. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS GroupHamilton manager Brian Rice speaks about his addiction. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS Group
Hamilton manager Brian Rice speaks about his addiction. Picture: Ross MacDonald/SNS Group

Kevin Twaddle can vividly recall his first appearance in the cauldron of Ibrox. It was the maiden game of the 1996/97 season, and his Raith Rovers side put in a spirited performance against Rangers, edged out by a single goal from Trevor Steven. Not that Twaddle tried to prevent it. Not that he even noticed Steven scoring.

“I never had the best game, probably because I was too busy checking the scoreboards to see how my coupon was going,” he recalls. “I was never the greatest player, but when you’re focusing on your bets instead of the match, it doesn’t help.”

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Twaddle’s playing career spanned either side of the millennium, a period in which Bovril was supplanted by Bollinger as football’s beverage of choice. He adored the game’s culture and its dressing room banter, but throughout it all, he was a “lonely and hurt” young man, gripped by a crippling disease.

He estimates that he lost more than £1 million to gambling over the years. Some of that money was his. Some of it came from short-term loans with exorbitant interest charges. Or his grandmother’s savings account. Or even his beloved niece’s piggy bank.

At his lowest ebb, the only thing that stopped him from taking his own life was the realisation that he could not put his family through any more suffering than they had endured already.

Nearly eight years have passed since he spoke out about how gambling almost consumed him. He wasn’t the first footballer to do so, and he won’t be the last.

The candid statement issued last week by Brian Rice, the widely-respected manager of Hamilton, has brought renewed focus to the issue, and intensified debate about whether enough is being done to help those involved in the game who, like Twaddle, are problem gamblers, while also ensuring sporting integrity prevails.

Having alerted the Scottish Football Association (SFA) to his struggles with the “horrible, isolating disease”, the governing body has charged Rice with breaching its gambling rules in each season dating back to July 2015.

With his hearing set for Thursday, the 56-year-old could face a suspension from the game lasting anywhere from three to 16 games, as well as a fine of up to £100,000. He could even face expulsion from the profession that has been a key part of his life since he first pulled on the colours of Hibernian 30 years ago. Some are calling for the SFA to apply discretion, given Rice’s candid and emotive admission and his commitment to both his own recovery and helping others. Some say the association – and politicians – should go further, and warn the Rice case highlights an ugly hypocrisy at the heart of a game which takes millions from gambling firms every year with one hand, yet brandishes its rulebook with the other.

For those problem gamblers in Scottish football who are teetering on the brink of relapse, there is no shortage of temptation to precipitate their descent. Rice’s team compete in the Ladbrokes Premiership, and despite being knocked out of the Betfred League Cup, remain in the running for the William Hill Scottish Cup. Numerous club sides, including the Old Firm, are sponsored by gambling firms, who ensure their messages and offers are emblazoned pitchside and in post-match interviews.

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“Betting has been a part of football for a long time, but it has not always been the way it is now, and has been for the last couple of years,” reasons Dr Richard Purves, a research fellow at the University of Stirling’s institute for social marketing, who has studied the impact of commercial marketing on gambling and other addictive behaviours.

“There is a culture of saturation and normalisation when it comes to gambling marketing in football. It’s making a lot of people sit up and think, ‘Oh, this is wrong.’”

That saturation sponsorship, experts and former players warn, lures players into the gambling culture, and inflicts untold harm on those who have already lost control.

Purves believes the exposure to the messaging “undoubtedly promotes relapse”, while Twaddle is of the view it is “especially damaging” for youngsters aged 16 or 17 on the fringes of the first team – players who want to impress and socialise with their older teammates. Betting, he says, is a huge part of that social fabric.

Twaddle, now working as a painter and decorator, and serving as an impassioned, articulate advocate for reform, warns that the admission by Rice and others like him barely scratches the surface of an “endemic problem”.

“You’d be amazed at the amount of people that need help in Scottish football, and the amount that are seeking help,” he says. “I know boys going through rehab just now, and boys seeing therapists in private.”

Professor Gerda Reith from the University of Glasgow’s school of social sciences has examined the impact of addictive consumption on different social groups.

Footballers, she believes, are vulnerable due to the normalisation of betting in their industry, with Reith comparing the situation to bar workers forced to endure second-hand smoke in their workplaces prior to the smoking ban coming into place.

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“I don’t think it’s anything to do with players as individuals, it’s the environment they’re in,” she says. “Their entire professional lives are absolutely surrounded by gambling marketing, advertising and inducements. It’s an intrinsic part of the game, and it’s much more of an influence on behaviour than we give it credit for.

“Players are plunged into that. They have a lot of downtime between training and games, and they often have a lot of money, so I’m not surprised at all that they gamble and get into problems with it.”

The growing calls for football to sever its ties with betting companies have long been tempered by those who argue that the value of the game north of the border means it can ill afford to turn its back on a lucrative revenue stream.

Cumulatively, the betting firms backing the three largest competitions are paying more than £3.5m a year for the privilege, with the vast majority going to the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), which in turn distributes prize money to clubs.

The SPFL also sells live statistics to betting companies, who harness the raw data for in-play betting features. That deal alone is worth a seven-figure sum every season.

Such numbers may be viewed as mere chicken feed in the English top flight, where even a relatively small club such as Burnley accrues £122m a season in television rights funding, but given the SPFL’s turnover stands at just £36m, every million counts. As one senior figure in the game put it, “How do you offset the debit?”

The fact that Ladbrokes’ parent company, GVC Holdings, is due to end its SPFL tie-up at the end of the season after five years, citing a greater determination to pursue its social responsibility mandate, poses a sizable headache for its chief executive, Neil Doncaster, and chairman, Murdoch MacLennan. It is not so long ago that the league went two years without sponsorship – a source of reputational damage as well as a financial blow.

William Hill’s sponsorship of the Scottish Cup is due to expire this year, but indications are it will be renewed, extending an already long-standing relationship.

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However, others in the game point to the decision by the Football Association (FA) in England to abandon its betting partner, and suggest the Scottish game should muster the courage and imagination to resist the lure of gambling money.

After all, the first major sponsorship of the Scottish Cup, struck way back in 1982, was a £200,000-a-year deal with Scottish Health Education Group, which promoted healthy lifestyle choices.

At the time, Ernie Walker, the SFA’s secretary, observed that “there are types of sponsorship which do not really go hand in hand with football but health and sport go together well”.

Nearly 40 years on, Vivienne MacLaren, the chair of Scottish Women’s Football, echoed such sentiments, after announcing her organisation would never agree sponsorship deals with gambling or alcohol firms.

“It has been a very hard line from us and, yes, we might be missing out on money from these areas,” said MacLaren. “But we wouldn’t feel comfortable because our approach is very much about well-being and mental health. I think we can get income from other brands.”

Paul Goodwin, co-founder of the Scottish Football Supporters Association (SFSA), is convinced the men’s game can follow suit.

He says: “The challenge is for the authorities and the clubs to find alternatives. If the FA can do it and other countries have no betting sponsorships at all, there must be opportunities out there.”

Ronnie Cowan, the SNP MP and vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gambling Related Harm, agreed: “There can be a transitional period to get out of the deals with gambling firms, and yes, it would be tough, but that’s what the mandarins in charge of Scottish football are paid for, and they’re paid handsomely.

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“If a club has a shirt sponsorship, for example, I’m not saying they should break that contract, but that the SFA should be saying, ‘No more.’”

The SFA did not comment when asked if it viewed its financial relationship with gambling firms as a sustainable long-term prospect, and the SPFL declined to respond to Scotland on Sunday’s enquiries, but one well-placed source said that for all the “soul searching” over the game’s finances, it was on relatively stable footing, even without the gambling money.

“The SPFL is looking at record revenue from the broadcast contracts it has with Sky, the BBC and Premier Sports,” the source explained. “They are in place until 2025 and there is other money coming from overseas deals with beIN Sports.

“It’s not riches, but is it enough to give the league a degree of freedom to pursue a new sponsor, one that’ll be seen as more agreeable? Yes, I would say so.”

Even if blanket sponsorship and advertising – viewed as one of the triggers of problematic betting among players – can be tempered, Rice’s powerful statement posed a question that is perhaps more pressing: what more can be done from within the game to help those in trouble?

PFA Scotland, the independent union for professional players, runs a gambling awareness programme alongside the RCA Trust, a Paisley-based addiction counselling charity, with guidance and support on offer.

However, the latest accounts of the trust – funded principally by local authorities Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire – acknowledge the “challenging” environment, noting: “Any further reductions in income will necessarily result in loss of service.”

Twaddle believes in the eight years that have passed since he went public with his illness, the nature of gambling has evolved drastically, thanks to the proliferation of mobile apps and in-play betting, but that the level of support on offer to players has “gone backwards”.

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He says: “The PFA does a wonderful job, but could more be done? 100 per cent yes. There should be a regular outreach service letting players know about the pitfalls, and that there are people there they can talk to.”

He is supportive of calls by Colin McGowan, Hamilton’s chief executive, for the introduction of a “gambling amnesty”, which the former Motherwell and Hearts forward says would be “the best thing that could happen to Scottish football”.

Twaddle also says that instead of suspending or fining those who breach betting rules, the SFA should consider introducing mandatory treatment programmes.

“What’s the point of fining someone and making them pace about the house for weeks on end?” he asks. “Why not educate them and place them on a programme that might help?”

Goodwin is among those to endorse such an idea. “It’s like speed awareness courses for people caught speeding,” he explains. “Of course, the world is full of people with addiction problems who’ve been to support groups and relapsed, but it’s important to encourage them to seek help and signpost what’s available.”

Reith points out that while a well-resourced, professional support system is crucial, an emphasis should be placed on stopping footballers from forming chaotic habits in the first place.

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that prevention is better than treatment. That means limiting the availability of advertising, sponsorship, and factors which influence behaviour,” she says.

There is also the question of who should instigate such changes. The decision by GVC Holdings to end its deal with the SPFL is a sign of the industry taking proactive steps, and the Gambling Commission has introduced a ban on people placing bets using credit card funds, but many believe such steps, though welcome, are insufficient, and that toughened legislation is necessary.

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“Self-regulation rarely targets the crux of the issue,” says Purves. “The greatest exposure for gambling firms is in pitchside advertising and shirt sponsorships.”

Reith argues that GVC’s backing of Scottish football, while significant on these shores, represents a “drop in the ocean” to its expenditure across global markets.

“It looks like things have gone too far for the companies to avoid regulation completely,” she says. “A radical shake up is long overdue.”

Cowan suggests that change is coming, stressing: “Self regulation is not working, and the entire industry is being dragged to the table kicking and screaming to make any changes whatsoever, so we are looking to overhaul the Gambling Act in its entirety.”

“We will be having a long, hard look at what can be done to reset the relationship between gambling and sport, and shirt sponsorship, and its outreach that goes deep into communities, will be a major part of that.”

In the meantime, all eyes will be on Rice’s hearing before the SFA later this week. He has already accepted that breaking the rules requires punishment, and the association – tasked with safeguarding the integrity of the game – will have a call to make. It alone will adjudge Rice’s fate, but the guardians of Scottish football, already under scrutiny, may have their own case to answer.