The news that Joey Barton’s football career appears to be over after an 18-month ban for betting irregularities may be irrelevant to many but it probably says as much about the sport as it does about the player himself.
The news is being reported as the latest tragedy to befall an undoubtedly intelligent but flawed man. Even Barton himself says, in his statement accepting the FA charges:
“I accept that this is one more mess I got into because of my own behaviour. This episode has brought home to me that just as I had to face up to the need to get help to deal with alcohol abuse, and with anger, so now I need to get help for my issues with gambling, and I will do so.”
The report on the BBC website by football reporter Phil McNulty is analytical about Barton and his many weaknesses but glosses over the fact that the whole professional game is in hock to the betting industry.
Indeed it almost accuses Barton of trying to pass the blame by his reference to this. McNulty writes:
Barton has divided opinion throughout his career – and he was at it again in what was effectively his retirement statement when he said: “If the FA is serious about tackling gambling, I would urge it to reconsider its own dependence on the gambling industry.”
He was referring to the links between betting chain Ladbrokes and the FA Cup.
It was a view that, yet again, polarised feelings. Was Barton making a valid point or simply trying to absolve himself from blame for breaking clear FA rules?
Seriously? Just Ladbrokes and the FA Cup?
You can’t watch football on any pay-per-view channel without being subjected to invitations to bet in every advert break – even in some cases with the very channel’s main football anchor popping up.
As Guardian writer Paul MacInnes put it in his piece:
Barton’s ban comes at a time when football has never been more closely intertwined with the gambling industry. Eleven of the 20 current Premier League sides wear the logos of betting companies on their shirts, while the Football League itself is sponsored by a gambling company. The growth in online or ‘remote’ gambling has meant that not just every match but most of the elements within them can now be gambled upon. Recent estimates at the amount of gambling losses accrued in the UK put the total at around £300 per person per year.
I’ve always had a puzzled liking for Joey Barton’s intelligence and tweets that equalled my exasperation at his outbursts, violence and stupidity but I’m gobsmacked at how anyone can place 15,000 bets in 12 years. He says the average bet was just over £150 and many were for only a few pounds but there were 15,000 of them. Staggering. But then he is an addict and addicts do stupid things.
It seems to me, however, that football itself is addicted to betting. Perhaps if the whole business was weaned off there would be fewer Joey Bartons in the future and our children wouldn’t have to see the logos on their heroes’ shirts.
Since February 2013 the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has recruited 26 counsellors and launched a nationwide network to support current and former members who have gambling addictions.
The players’ union has been addressing the wider issues of emotional well-being and addiction for more than 14 years and this is an extra service for current and former PFA members: a safe place to get support and counselling. There is also a 24-hour helpline.
Clearly, players have to be responsible for their actions but there comes a point when the industry itself needs to recognise that its own financial systems are contributing to a problem. If football relies on the betting industry and allows the companies to trumpet themselves on shirts, around pitches, in every advert break and sponsorship opportunity then how long before it recognises that betting is just as harmful as smoking – it’s just that the destruction manifest itself differently.
What does the slogan say? When the fun stops, stop. It stopped long ago.