Gambling must be tackled, says Oisin McConville
Former Armagh footballer Oisin McConville yesterday revealed that even during his darkest times of gambling, he never placed any money on games that he was directly involved in.
McConville, who emerged from that period of life to become an addiction counsellor, was speaking at the launch of the GAA/GPA guidelines on gambling for club and county players, as well as the wider GAA community.
In September 2007 McConville admitted that he had amassed sizeable debts and sought help for his condition.
He received much admiration within the GAA community for the way he was able to turn his problem around and turned it into a positive.
He gained qualifications in counselling and as well as it becoming his professional life, he has helped many in similar circumstances.
Yesterday, McConville admitted that there was a temptation to bet on games he played in, but he avoided that pitfall.
He related his difficulties, saying, "I suppose one of the things that kept me away from it, and it is sort of a light-hearted thing, but it's actually the truth – when I was tempted, one of the things I was aware of was that most of the bets that I placed actually lost. I certainly didn't want a double whammy.
"I'll be honest, I could walk into a Gamblers' Anonymous meeting and there might be 16 other compulsive gamblers. When I tell them that I never put a bet on my own game they will snigger or laugh to me to say that is not the way compulsive gamblers operate."
With internet gambling proving a lucrative venture for bookmakers and a number of high-profile examples of players experiencing difficulties and running up sizeable debts, it is clear that gambling has emerged as a huge social problem.
The GAA have published two booklets containing guidelines and are circulating them nationally.
The gravity of the situation was spelled out when McConville admitted that there are a lot of high-profile players that seek him out.
"Some of them would be in serious bother," he added, before stating that seeking help is only part of the solution and that addicts first and foremost had to help themselves.
McConville also related that the sport he was involved in provided a relief.
"My life was in such turmoil, the one thing that made sense to me, kept me going, and this might sound as if I am exaggerating, but the one thing that sort of kept me alive was the fact I was playing football and there was a structure there.
"I felt comfortable there and for those couple of hours, whether it be a Tuesday or Thursday night or a Sunday, that I could get away from all that craziness."
There has been many examples of match-fixing in other sports, and of course the GAA would not be immune to such temptations, but McConville would attest that it's not something he is aware of.
"I don't think there is any I have heard of but of course, that is something, down the track, where this sort of thing is going to go and why you'd recommend that players don't get involved in gambling on their own sport," he commented.
While acknowledging that some players might have placed a bet on themselves to score the first goal in a game, he believes there is a great danger that a group of individuals could become involved in match-fixing.
He said, "The greatest danger is if we go down the road where a couple of players get together and try to influence the result of a game.
"Let's hope we can nip that in the bud before it actually happens.
"There have been a lot of high-profile cases in cricket and soccer or whatever where that has happened before.
"I can't imagine why the GAA would be any different," he added.
McConville's county, Armagh, begin their division two campaign this weekend when they play neighbours Louth in Drogheda.
Having bore witness to their 24-point hammering to Tyrone in the McKenna Cup, the 38-year-old two-time All-Star is not exactly brimming with enthusiasm for what the year might hold for the Orchard county.
"They are reporting a huge amount of injuries. I know they are training really hard, it just hasn't happened yet."
He continued, "I think this weekend's game is absolutely massive for Armagh, because when you look at the fixtures they have – both home and away – it is very difficult to see at this moment in time, with all the injuries they have, where they are going to actually pick up points.
"I think the last thing they want to do is get relegated from division two, but that's something that would be quite realistic at this stage when you consider the panel of players they have to pick out of."
Rise in addiction prompted move to highlight issue
It was a sharp increase in the numbers of players confessing gambling problems to the Gaelic Players' Association's Counselling Service that prompted the GAA to raise awareness around the issue, according to GPA Chief Executive, Dessie Farrell.
Speaking at the launch yesterday in Croke Park, Farrell revealed the numbers seeking support, saying, "All we can account for is what we can see coming through our door. In 2012, we had 12. And last year, it was 22."
He continued, "There are two major areas of concern for the GPA – the rise in gambling addiction and the potential for match fixing or spot fixing down the line. While the numbers suffering with addiction are still relatively small, they are rising. Thankfully we have had no evidence to date of any irregularities around players betting, we are acutely aware of the problems experienced in other sports."
The event was treated with the utmost of importance by senior figures in Croke Park, and GAA President Liam O'Neill spoke about the measures taken by the body to ensure each member and player were fully aware of their stance on gambling.
"Problem gambling is becoming a growing concern in modern Ireland," O'Neill said.
"As part of the GAA's on-going work in the area of health and wellbeing, the association felt it timely to produce this booklet of basic guidelines as an educational resource for our players, members, and clubs.
"This document aims to assist GAA members in identifying what problem gambling is and to encourage those who may be experiencing a difficulty to seek support and assistance."
Offaly captain Niall McNamee has sought help for his own gambling addiction and he refused to rule out the peril of match-fixing in the future.
"I wouldn't see why not," the 28-year-old said.
"Gambling can bring you to a stage where you're absolutely desperate. It was something that I never did, but I was lucky in that in November 2011 I stopped gambling, but I don't know if I had stayed gambling for another year what would have happened.
"I could have got to that stage where I need 'x 'amount of money, how am I going to make it? One thing I can do is something I have control over.
"If a person gets into that much trouble and they don't see any way out that could be an option and that's what we're trying to do here, get people talking. You're not going to change it overnight. You're not going to say, 'Right you're not allowed to gamble on football games anymore if you're playing'."
With the GPA quoting figures as high as 7% of their membership reporting some measure of problem with gambling, McNamee gave the initiative his backing.
"The more people talk about it, the more people are going to be aware of it," he said.
"I know myself from playing and being in dressing rooms playing on teams that it's a massive topic on football, horse racing, soccer. It's a hot topic."
Gambling guidelines for clubs, their players, and their members can be downloaded from gaa.ie or for county players on gaelicplayers.com.