Paul Buck, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Problem Gambling Consultancy, writes about professional sport’s duty of care to its players, fans and wider society on problem gambling.

Sport Matters! Professional sport has a massive influence in the UK, arguably greater than religion (in fact, for many people sport is their religion), greater than politics and for children it can sometimes be a more powerful influence than parents, guardians or school. So it should come as no surprise that sports betting is something about which sport, society and parents need to be aware.

The latest prevalence survey suggests that there are 450,000 problem gamblers in the United Kingdom with anything up to a further 3,000,000 at risk of becoming problem gamblers. A report in 2012 suggest that 60,000 of these problem gamblers are aged between 11-15 years old. Problem gambling has the highest suicide, bankruptcy, relationship breakdown and relapse rates of any addiction. It is also the fastest growing reason that people are going to prison.

Of course, not all gambling is problematic. For many it is a pleasurable activity will little ill-effect. However a survey by the Professional Players Federation in 2014 suggested that 6.1% of professional sportsmen are classified as problem gamblers, more than three times the prevalence of non-sportsmen. The reality could be even more serious. Gambling is the hidden addiction. No-one who is a true problem gambler will actually put their hand up and admit it, in fact they will use a tremendous amount of skill, ingenuity, dishonesty and time to keep it hidden. Very often a true problem gambler – or pathological gambler – will only come forward or be discovered when they hit a severe rock bottom. Tragically in some cases this is often too late to save a career, family or even life.  In the meantime form will dip, productivity will reduce, games will be lost as will the resale and promotional value of the individual.

There is a stigma still attached to problem gambling in that it is a dirty habit or a dirty word. Clubs and workplaces don’t want problem gambling associated with their organisation, there is a reluctance to recognise it as an issue and if it does become an issue it will be dealt with quietly and anonymously often through a pathway of support that is not fit for purpose. Gambling addiction is misunderstood.

So why does professional sport have a duty of care in this issue … and who to?

A duty of care is defined as the legal or moral obligation to safeguard others from harm while they are in your care, using your services, or exposed to your activities’. This is a wide range definition and would strongly suggest that professional sport has a duty to safeguard their players, their supporters, and wider society.

Professional sportspeople are susceptible to the potentially lethal environmental cocktail of high salaries with relatively unstructured working practices. These are combined with a competitive personality and in some cases the additional traits of boredom, injury, press intrusion and being out of their comfort zone. Any of these can make an at risk problem gambler a gambling addict. A blend of these quickens and intensifies the pathway to addiction. Each sport will have its own issues, its own temptations and its own pathways into problematic gambling.

During 2013 I was asked to monitor a player who had suspected problem gambling issues. I took the opportunity of taking my 10 year old son to the match as being a Preston North End supporter he was not familiar with Premiership football! I decided to monitor how many times he was faced with gambling interactions. That day unsettled me and made me realise that EPIC needed to become involved with professional sport around the duty of care issue. From shirt sponsorship, to programme advertising to stand naming rights, to electronic advertising boards to gambling kiosks in the grounds to half time lottery draws he was subjected to 27 separate betting gambling interactions. On sitting down to watch the match he looked up at me and asked ‘come on Daddy what will be the score and who will score first?’. I froze. There was no money mentioned but it made me realise that gambling is becoming so normalized within sport now and our children are being bombarded with gambling ads and opportunities without being given the education to make an informed decision. The same is also true to adults. There has been a 1,374% increase in gambling advertisements in the last 7 years.

At EPIC we believe that each sport should conduct a full, and independent, risk assessment on problem gambling.  This analysis should be the starting point for making sure that the sports’ duty of care is fulfilled to all stakeholders and the negative effects of problematic gambling will be minimised.

So how should this Duty of Care be fulfilled in a typical example? Briefly, following on from the initial risk assessment, it is important to look at the environment within the club.  Is the manager encouraging players to gamble as team building? Is the card school at the back of the bus tacitly tolerated?  Do officials at the clubs know how to identify a problem gambler? Is there a clear and fit for purpose pathway of support and how do they know that it works? The provision of effective education and training around problem gambling is usually the starting point of any action plan.  The effectiveness of this education needs to be monitored and tailored for different groups.  It is also important that the messenger as well as the message is considered.  High profile and credible athletes can be a powerful advocate for getting the message across. Similarly people who have lived the addiction at pathological level – and come through the other side – provide powerful and engaging facilitators.

By taking the initiative sport will ensure that its’ brand will be better protected as well as promoting the collective perception and reputation that professional sport is a responsible business that cares for its players, employers and spectators. If sport can lead the way in addressing this issue as the ‘greatest influencer in the UK’ then other fields will follow and the stigma and negative effects of problem gambling can be tackled far more effectively.

I will leave the final word to Brendon Batson OBE, Chairman of the Professional Players Federation:

“There is an urgent need to break down the stigma attached to problem gambling in sport. Sportsmen are a clear ‘at risk’ group and the whole of professional sport has a duty of care to these young men.  We all need to work together to expand and improve the good practice that exists on education and treatment for problem gambling.”

This blog was written by Paul Buck BA (HONS) SAC.advDip, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Problem Gambling Consultancy, on the request of the Professional Players Federation.

EPIC is the leading problem gambling consultancy in the UK and Ireland specialising in reducing organisational risk and fulfillment of duty of care. EPIC currently works in high risk sectors such as financial services and the armed forces in addition to FTSE 100, 250 and 350 organisations. EPIC are also the only registered tier 2/3 provider in the Ministry Of Justice Transforming Rehabilitation process.

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