The vulnerability of sports people to gambling harm was highlighted at a recent AFL Players Association (AFLPA) forum, ‘Reducing the Risk’.
Supported by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the forum involved researchers, psychologists and industry experts discussing gambling risks for professional and community sportspeople.
Foundation CEO Shane Lucas said gambling had become a ‘normalised’ social, cultural and recreational activity in Australia, which made betting on sport seem like a harmless, everyday expression of fandom.
In fact, the annual social cost of gambling harm in Victoria is estimated at $7 billion.
‘Through the Love the Game program, the Foundation is interrupting the narrative that sport equals gambling,’ Mr Lucas said.
At the elite level, it’s a harm minimisation program that alerts players to the many side effects of gambling harm, from stress and anxiety to financial loss and on to regret, shame and stigma. Participants learn that the gambling industry is built on people’s losses.
The program also educates players about marketing tricks like bonus bets and promotions, and how to steer clear of harm. This can start with setting limits and lead back to watching sport for the sheer pleasure of it; loving the game, not the odds.
Already a demographic identified as risk-takers, men aged 18 to 25 are particularly at risk of gambling harm –– and speakers detailed numerous ways that young AFL players are further exposed.
With a relatively high income and plenty of free time, players live within a compliance regime that restricts diet, alcohol and drug consumption, but not phone use. With 70 per cent of sports betting happening online, players can bond within the same online betting environment as their contemporaries.
Social inclusion can be a powerful lure for young men.
Dr Rebecca Jenkinson, Australian Institute of Family Studies fellow and manager of the Australian Gambling Research Centre, presented her Foundation-funded research, Weighing up the odds.
Focusing on men 18–35 years, the figures are stark. On average, they bet on six different sports, with 61 per cent betting via their smartphone. Weekly bettors might have up to six accounts, while 64 per cent report betting while affected by alcohol.
Psychologist Zoi Penoglou explored gambling harm-related issues such as withdrawal, lying, chasing losses, relationship problems and job fallout.
‘Gambling harm is covert,’ she said. ‘You can’t see it. It can’t be picked up in a drug test or a skin-fold test.’
Forum participants were keen to know from each speaker how to identify that someone is affected and the best way to intervene or help.
An intervention staged by loved ones was the thing that finally worked for ex-Melbourne player Daniel Ward, who shared his raw and honest story of a gambling habit that began when he was 13 and dramatically escalated through his 10-year AFL career.
Daniel urged attendees to ask people they suspect are struggling with gambling, ‘Are you ok?’ while admitting that he used to fob off that same question.
‘I ended my career and didn’t have a penny to show for it,’ he said.
‘Training was my only escape. I could turn my phone off and no-one could chase me for money. The stress was 24/7: who had I lied to and what did I say? Who had I borrowed money from and needed to avoid?’
The forum did, however, end on a positive note with its discussion of the AFLPA’s ‘Tackle Your feelings’ program, which aims to help community football coaches build the skills to understand, recognise and manage signs of mental health.
For every person who experiences severe gambling harm, up to six other people close to them are negatively affected. And while young men might find it hard to look after themselves, an awareness that their behaviour is affecting those they love can be the shock that prompts insight leading to profound and lasting behaviour change.