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Comment: GAA are putting player welfare ahead of monetary gain

By Declan Bogue

On June 29, 2008, there was one of the most tasteless displays of 'humour' that a GAA crowd gathered in Clones could have witnessed. It was a Down fan, with an oversized placard made out as a betting slip with 'Oisin's SP - Me first goal, 12/1, stake £1,000'.

The previous September, bereft of any pride in himself, Oisin McConville has made the courageous decision to speak about the gambling addiction that had almost killed him.

"There was one day when I'd lost maybe £10,000," he said.

"I went out to the car and gathered together maybe £8 and went back (to the shop) and had another bet."

Oisin was a trailblazer at the time, possibly the first high-profile sportsman to document his crippling addiction to gambling, and not in a Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington 'loveable-rogue-what-will-we-ever-do-with-him' kind of way, playing it for laughs sense.

His autobiography that followed was harrowing, admitting to thoughts of suicide and self-entrapment through living his own lie.

Despite this, soon after McConville's own club Crossmaglen Rangers accepted a shirt sponsorship deal with Bar One Racing.

As ever in a small town, it was complicated. McConville had relations on the committee that accepted the deal and so, if he played Gaelic football for Crossmaglen on a pitch - the one place he felt was refuge against all his troubles - he would have to wear the company logo on his chest.

"It was not that they approached me to say if it was okay," he explained.

"The club needed a sponsor and went and got a sponsor. It wasn't ideal. I suppose at the time a lot of people mentioned it was a morality thing, I was going to have to make a decision about whether to wear this jersey, and to tell you the truth there was a bit of soul-searching done.

"But football was the one thing, it was the only thing I had when I was in a bad place, one of the things that kept me alive. I chose football and I chose to wear that jersey."

After last Saturday, nobody in the GAA will have that conundrum.

The first Motion of Congress was that, 'sponsorship by a betting company of any competition, team, playing gear or facility be prohibited'. It was voted through by 93% of delegates.

The problem up until now for the GAA is that sport events and having a bet have always gone hand in hand.

Of all the vices, it was almost seen as the least harmless. 'Sure he likes a flutter, what harm,' has been a common refrain for longer than we can remember.

In recent years, players have become hooked. Offaly's Niall McNamee once spoke about selling his car to pay off gambling debts. Tyrone corner-back Cathal McCarron collaborated with Christy O'Connor to write possibly the most harrowing account of addiction with his autobiography 'Out of Control' that plumbed the worst excesses of addiction.

The main problem arises with the explosion in popularity of gambling, and the accessibility.

In the Premier League, nine of the 20 clubs have betting firms sponsoring their shirts. You cannot watch a game on television without being assailed by opportunities to bet.

Gambling is already overtaking all other societal issues.

A recent survey of the UK industry by three academics, Mark Griffiths, Jim Orford and Heather Wardle, "found that 30-35% of the industry's revenue comes from full-blown problem gamblers".

Young men on inter-county teams are especially vulnerable. Such is the level of training now, that having a few pints to blow off steam is no longer an option, especially in the era of the smartphone and social media.

With long journeys to games and training, and a gambling app on your phone, the temptation to stick a few quid here and there is an ever-present.

That's why the GAA message from Saturday spells out that they are putting player welfare ahead of monetary gain.

Look at the transformation of players after they were freed from their addictions. Cathal McCarron has started a new life in Athy and is settled in a family unit.

While McConville was renting a pub in Virginia, his outward demeanour was terrible.

The pub floundered because nobody wants to look at a long face behind the counter.

Now, he is one of the most engaging talkers and works tirelessly with others in educating people about the dangers of addiction.

He does this under the radar, developing into one of the most articulate men you could meet, an advertisement of what can be achieved with a lot of introspection and some successful self-actualisation.

It would have been easy for the GAA to carry on as they were. But this changes a lot of things.

Belfast Telegraph

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