When we watch athletes perform in sporting events, we’re really only concerned about how well they do. We want them to score goals or amass points that will propel them to the top of the leader board. But what we don’t often consider is what they’re involved in outside of playing sports. Unless they’re a big superstar sportsperson, that is. After all, you probably can’t go a week without seeing at least one news story on Rafael Nadal having fun in the sun on a water ski or Cristiano Ronaldo relaxing on holiday aboard his £5.5 million superyacht.
One thing is for sure – most of us never really pay attention to a sportsperson’s gambling habits. Yet the likelihood is that several people involved in sport participate in gambling, even when their professional codes say they shouldn’t. But is this activity good for an athlete? Should footballers and tennis players and track stars and so on be able to place bets? And what’s more, when they do gamble, how does it affect their performance when it does come to playing sports?
Join us as we take a closer look at how gambling can affect an athlete’s performance and what potential negatives or indeed benefits it may have for them.
English Football League Players Banned from Gambling
Before we get into the details of athletes gambling, it is important to look back to 2014, which is when players in the English Football League (EFL) were banned from betting on any world matches. All professional players in the top eight tiers of the league would not be able to place bets on matches taking place anywhere in the world from the proceeding season onwards. The rules prior to this only restricted them from betting on games which their own teams were participating in.
Yet despite the rules being in place, it was discovered that Andros Townsend, Dan Gosling and Cameron Jerome, playing for Tottenham, Newcastle and Crystal Palace respectively, had broken the restrictions. Therefore, new laws were introduced as a way of trying to put a curb on footballers partaking in gambling, which included the ban on bets taken on new managers or player transfers within the league.
“Participants covered by the ban will be prohibited from betting, either directly or indirectly, on any football match or competition that takes place anywhere in the world”,
said the FA in a statement. It highlighted that those rules would come into effect for the start of the 2014/15 season, and they have remained active in the EFL ever since then.
But what exactly is the issue with footballers, and athletes in general, participating in gambling? Why does it require such a ban to be put into effect? Well, obviously there is the potential for match or sport fixing but it is also due to the potential for athletes to be a lot more susceptible to gambling addiction than the general everyday player due to the levels of money they earn.
Athletes Often Have Strong Personality Traits
Anyone competing in sport tends to come with a high expectation when it comes to being successful. They generally want to push themselves to be able to secure a victory for themselves or their team, so there’s already a strong level of competitiveness there. So much so that it could end up being an unreasonable expectation that they have of being the overall leader of the race.
Those are also signs of compulsive gamblers as well. They always want to try and beat the game they’re playing, they have that high level of competitiveness and their optimism in something can frequently be fairly distorted.
While initially research on the effects of gambling in the world of sports was quite scarce, it has since been conducted by various companies and research teams in recent years. Through such investigations, it has been discovered that athletes are three times more likely to develop problem gambling habits when compared with the general populace.
That problem gets even more pronounced if they are on a lower income bracket, too. According to figures released by the Professional Players’ Federation (PPF), around 6.1% of sportsmen would be classified as having a problem gambling situation, compared to the 1.9% of young males in the general population. That same research also showed that only about a quarter of sportsmen had received education on responsible gambling.
Confidential questionnaires were carried out on 170 professional footballers and 176 professional cricketers to come to the conclusions noted above. One year prior, the Sporting Chance rehabilitation clinic made the statement that footballers had been taking out pay-day loans so as to fund their gambling addictions, and that around 70% of the people referred to the clinic were those related to gambling addiction.
Matthew Etherington, who played as a winger for Tottenham, Stoke and West Ham, was one of the professional sportsmen assisted by Sporting Chance after he lost a total of £1.5 million through betting on greyhound races, as well as horse racing and poker. He isn’t alone though, as former Northern Ireland, Newcastle and Manchester United winger Keith Gillespie admitted to a gambling problem himself. He said that he had managed to lose £47,000 in a single afternoon of gambling activity.
It’s due to situations like this that the FA introduced its ban on players placing bets on any matches occurring worldwide. This was also done to tackle corruption within the sport, as various instances of players engaging in match fixing so that they (and others involved) could secure a large sports bet payout, cropped up.
Why Would A Professional Athlete Want To Gamble?
If athletes are engaging in sport and living out their sporting dreams as professional players, then why would they even want to get involved in gambling in the first place?
Well, through research conducted by Rockey, Beason & Gilbert (2002), it was discovered that athletes prefer to place wagers on games that include a high level of skill. Therefore, it’s not simply that they go to a casino and spin slot games, because they’re quite simple to engage in and don’t really require any sort of skill level.
Instead, the majority of players with addiction problems would engage in sports betting or poker, for example, because they require some level of thought. Therefore, it wouldn’t be such a leap to believe that this is the case because athletes themselves participate in sports that require a good skillset themselves. Playing football professionally isn’t just something that anyone can do.
The same with tennis or golf or volleyball, for example. And like those professional sports are quite challenging and competitive in nature, so too are the gambling games these players select to bet on. By engaging in such gambling activity, athletes increase their risk, which in turn increases the overall level of competition. And if there’s one thing a sportsperson likes, it’s a challenge that they can try to overcome.
Essentially, the competitive nature that players have while engaging in their relative sports has the potential to invade into their personal, everyday lives. So many types of gambling exist that the athletes have the ability to continue that high level of competing when they’re not engaging in sports.
As many researchers have found before, engaging in gambling comes with an adrenaline rush, which is what makes us feel good. Yet there is a certain point where someone becoming addicted to gambling builds up a tolerance to it. Indeed, when sports stars are injured they are even more at risk of gambling problems as they want to maintain the competition but they are side lined from the action.
In this respect, sportspeople need to remain active where competition is concerned, so as to continue obtaining that adrenaline high. Without it, there is a likelihood that they will end up feeling withdrawn and lost, which would have its own impact on how they play sports.
Former basketball player Michael Jordan is a fine example of this. He was known for engaging in gambling and had various outlets where this was concerned. Yet betting on the golf course was one of his primary punts, with Jordan being quoted as saying that golf is one of the more challenging sports to get involved in.
In 1993, a businessman known by the name of Richard Esquinas wrote a book entitled, Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction…My Cry for Help!, which focused on Jordan’s gambling activities. In it, Esquinas claimed that the basketball star owed him $1.2 million (£995,400) in golf bets that he had lost.
Of course, if a sportsperson’s career hits a slump or they end up retiring, there’s nothing that says they will be able to financially support themselves in the same way that they did when they were actively competing. And this leads them to turn to gambling as a potential way to solve their financial problems.
If there’s one thing we know about athletes, it’s that they don’t like to be defeated. And just as they would compete during a sporting event, they have that high level of commitment to being victorious in gambling games, too. Therefore, more money is invested, they experience a sort of shame or guilt from experiencing a loss and want to try and regain the control over that by proceeding with even more gambling.
Unfortunately, that is what the beginning of gambling addiction looks like, and it’s not so easy to control for the average person, let alone a sportsperson who is already highly competitive in nature.
Suffering from Gambling Addiction
It’s not difficult to find stories about professional athletes who have engaged in gambling and wound up addicted to it. Naturally, this is bound to affect their performance when playing sports, especially if they have suffered several large losses.
Take a look at the story of Pete Rose, the former professional baseball player. In 2004, he published an autobiography, which saw him admit to placing bets on baseball games and other sports while playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds. He also admitted to betting on Reds games, and he hoped that those admissions would help to erase his ban from baseball.
This was not the case though, as he was actually made ineligible to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame as a result. During his most prolific gambling periods, Rose said that he bet on the Reds for a minimum of $10,000 “every night”.
Former basketball star Charles Barkley admitted in 2006 that he had proceeded to lose more than $10 million, thanks to a gambling habit. This included a Super Bowl event where he ended up wagering a total of $700,000, as well as an instance of betting $2.5 million on a game of blackjack. This led to the Wynn casino in Las Vegas suing him in 2008 for $400,000 in unpaid gambling debts. It was at this point that Barkley announced he would never engage in gambling activity ever again.
Anyone in the United Kingdom knows about the woes of former footballer Wayne Rooney’s private life. He’s had quite the rocky marriage and engaged in some rather aggressive pitch shenanigans, too. Yet it is also publicly known that he suffered with gambling addiction for several years.
By the age of 20, he had managed to accumulate more than $1 million in gambling debt, including an instance of him blowing over $100,000 in just two hours at a casino establishment. In 2020, Rooney opened up about his addiction problems during his stint as a player for Manchester United.
He said that he would go ahead and find online betting sites to join as a way of filling the time while he was away with England or Man U.
“For an away game with Manchester United you stay in a hotel – and with England you’re in a hotel for seven to 10 days. You get bored and do things to fill the time. At that time gambling was one of them”, he commented. “You’re there to play for your country or club and when you’re losing money the way I was then it will affect you”.