The gambler’s fallacy: English soccer’s betting problem

After soccer player Joey Barton's career was effectively finished following a ban for betting on the sport, is it time for authorities to look at their own addictions to the world of gambling?

The gambler’s fallacy: English soccer’s betting problem

To open, some facts: English soccer player Joey Barton, currently under contract at Premier League side Burnley, has been handed an 18-month ban by the Football Association (FA) for placing 1,260 bets on soccer matches over a ten-year period between 2006 and 2016. Barton’s total outlay was over UK£200,000, with the player making a loss of UK£16,708 across the course of the decade.

The FA imposes a blanket ban on gambling on any soccer matches, but its guidelines recommend particularly strong sanctions in cases in which the bet is placed against the gambler’s own team, or on fixtures in which they are personally involved. Barton made at least 15 bets on matches involving his own clubs, playing in at least five of those games. The recommended suspension for laying your own team on a single occasion is six months to life.

As usual, the British media has been quick to miss the point on the issue. The case for the prosecution has been swiftly outnumbered by the assembled defence – generally former players-turned-pundits and tabloid journalists – who have jumped at the chance to senselessly contrast apples with oranges, noting that Barton’s 18-month ban looks severe when compared with past punishments meted out for, say, racist abuse or violent conduct; arguing that it was, ultimately, all harmless fun, that Barton was only damaging himself with his relatively minor net loss of what amounts to around half a week’s wages. For such arguments to stand, we must ignore such trivialities as precedent, FA statutes, the nationwide crisis of widespread gambling addiction, and British law, but even if we go with all that, it’s telling that the reaction has focused on how wronged Barton has been, on the extremity of the censure rather than the root cause of the problem.

Robbie Savage – former soccer player, current TV pundit and, most crucially, brand ambassador for high street bookmaker William Hill – wrote an impassioned column defending Barton in The Mirror, a column which handily doubles as a defence of the gambling industry itself, of which Savage says he is “proud to be a patron”. In a piece which oscillates between righteous indignation and irrelevant self-congratulation, Savage argues that Barton – along with fellow former professionals John Hartson and Keith Gillespie – simply struggles with a “craving for placing bets,” absolving everyone involved of all responsibility, except the FA, whose crime isn’t over-reliance on bookmakers’ sponsorship funds or rank hypocrisy but merely an over-judiciousness coupled with a jobsworth’s approach to sentencing.

Savage is far from alone. By the mainstream media’s measure, Barton is only a victim of the FA and its need for scapegoat, not of a rampant gambling industry whose tendrils have infiltrated the sport at every conceivable level. In a statement given in his own defence, Barton said that he had grown up ‘in an environment where betting was and still is part of the culture,’ offering that the very thing that had driven him to success in his playing career – an ‘addiction to winning’, as he put it – was what had caused his ultimate downfall.

Some further facts: the previous two shirts worn by Barton at club level, at Burnley and Scottish side Rangers, carried the branding of betting firms. 50 per cent of the Premier League’s 20 clubs wear gambling companies’ logos on their playing kit; 100 per cent of them have at least one “official gaming partner”. The naming rights to the three tiers of English soccer below the Premier League are held by SkyBet, in a deal that was renewed for a further three years last autumn. The FA itself has a significant partnership with Ladbrokes, which sponsors the English national soccer teams as well as the FA Cup.

The real problem with the severity of Barton’s ban and the discussion around it isn’t the implication for Barton’s career, but the way it has reinforced the utterly deleterious notion that addictions are purely the culpability of the addict, with gambling – lacking, as it does, the tangible chemical element of alcoholism or a drug addiction – particularly vulnerable to this kind of interpretation. Thus the FA’s, and English soccer’s, own gambling problem escapes without scrutiny. To gamble – even on such a large scale, over such a prolonged period – was Barton’s choice, without influence from external factors, and certainly not inspired by the ubiquity of betting throughout the sport. This message filters down to the British high street; high streets on which bookmakers are omnipresent and face no shortage of potential customers. The UK Gambling Commission claims that as many as four million people across England, Scotland and Wales exhibit some signs of “problem gambling”.

When Formula One faced up to its own demons in 2006, outlawing tobacco branding and stemming what had been the lifeblood of the sport, it was a move which cost the series and its teams billions of dollars in revenue but allowed it to move into a cleaner, more socially conscious era – relatively speaking, of course, for a petrol-fuelled series run until recently by Bernie Ecclestone. It is hard to see soccer having the same courage.

‘If the FA is truly serious about tackling the culture of gambling in football,’ wrote Barton in his statement, ‘it needs to look at its own dependence on the gambling companies, their role in football and in sports broadcasting, rather than just blaming the players who place a bet.’ Self-serving it may be but, on this occasion, it’s hard to escape the sense that Barton might have a point.

Follow Adam on Twitter @adamsonnel

This column originally appeared in Issue 94 of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe here.