Stephen Halliday: Blaming bookies for Brian Rice’s betting problem is simplistic and wrong

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I f you had ploughed in more than £20 million to Scottish football’s collective coffers over the past eight years, you might feel you are due a certain degree of appreciation.

But the CEOs of William Hill, Ladbrokes and Betfred must all be asking themselves this week whether their considerable investments in the country’s three major domestic competitions have been worth the hassle.

The demonisation of the bookmakers amid the fall-out from Brian Rice’s candid admission of a serious gambling addiction has been quite something to behold.

From sanctimonious drivel spouted by some pundits who should know better, to opportunist populism from no-mark politicians who can’t jump on any passing bandwagon quickly enough, there has been a breathless rush to lay all the blame for Rice’s woes at the bookies’ doors.

But to directly conflate their title sponsorships of the Scottish Cup, SPFL and League Cup with the Hamilton manager’s long-standing problem is as insulting to the intelligence as it is plainly illogical.

Rice himself has accepted personal responsibility for his addiction, making no attempt to pass the buck to those who have taken his bets on the roulette wheel or over the bookies’ counter down the years, after self-reporting his multiple breaches of gambling rules to the Scottish FA.

He is ready to accept whatever punishment comes his way at next Thursday’s disciplinary hearing at Hampden. Hopefully, his contrition and courage will receive due consideration from those who apply the sanctions.

But his addiction would exist regardless of who are the current commercial backers of the game in which he makes a living. Amid the universal sympathy expressed towards Rice from his managerial colleagues, welcome notes of reason were brought to the debate this week by two of the most articulate and thoughtful voices in Scottish football, Celtic boss Neil Lennon and Aberdeen’s Derek McInnes. Both were typically firm and cogent in their dismissals of the suggestion bookmakers’ sponsorship deals cause or exacerbate problem gambling.

In an ideal world, the SPFL and Scottish FA would probably prefer their three major competitions to be backed by firms or organisations who enjoy a higher ethical reputation in the eyes of the game’s self-styled moral guardians.

But those kind of blue-chip companies, if the poker-based reference can be excused, are not exactly queuing around the block to associate themselves with a Scottish football environment still too often tarnished by incidents of crowd disorder, antisocial behaviour and sectarianism.

Like it or not, the bookies are a natural fit for our national sport where, for many supporters, the optimistic and responsible placing of a fixed-odds coupon has been part of their matchday experience for decades.

Ladbrokes has already decided this season will be its last as SPFL title sponsor, having shelled out around £10 million over their five seasons. William Hill, which has also contributed an eight-digit sum since first backing the Scottish Cup in 2012-13, and Betfred, which has supported the League Cup to the tune of around £1.5 million in the last four years, both see their current deals expire this year.

If they are still weighing up whether they should extend their contracts, the opprobrium irrationally heaped in their direction may have provided further pause for thought.

Should they choose to join Ladbrokes and call time on their sponsorships, they will leave a gaping financial hole which will be challenging to fill for SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster and his Scottish FA counterpart Ian Maxwell this summer.