James Lawton: Flood of money has unleashed forces of greed
Friday 04 April 2008
In American sport, gambling has for nearly a century been the longest shadow. It would no more be granted official sponsor status, at is it with four Premiership clubs here, than a drug dealer would be allowed a franchise alongside the sellers of hot-dogs and cold beer.
It means that the news that a former Premiership player has admitted to paying off a bookmaker £50,000 worth of betting debt by conspiring to be sent off, is maybe the long overdue warning that the Americans are right – and that English football is profoundly wrong.
Ever since the selling of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago "Black Sox", the Americans have been obsessed by the need to proof their sports against the dangers of corruption which are so heightened when players are compromised by the addictions of gambling and drug use.
The baseball legend Pete Rose was hounded out of office as manager of the Cincinnati Reds when he was found to be gambling on games. He never bet against his own team, but simply placing a bet was considered crime enough to have him ejected from the sport's Hall of Fame.
Here, despite the huge volume of betting, including the spread gambling culture in which massive sums can we won or lost on such arcane matters as how many players are cautioned or dismissed, there is no such dividing line.
Ironically, the Black Sox scandal was triggered by the grievances of players who felt their skills were undervalued. In the Premiership there is no such complaint but no less worry that in such an overheated economy, where some star players went through a phase of lighting cigars with £50 notes, the value of money, and any restraints on disposing of it, were in danger of being swept away.
Manchester United's Wayne Rooney was reported to have incurred heavy gambling losses a few years ago, and much has been made of the England forward Michael Owen's relish for a horse-racing wager. The former Chelsea player Eidur Gudjohnsen has admitted blowing £400,000 in one casino spree.
But it is lower down the food chain where the problem is more insidious. Even at £10,000 a week, the idea that heavy gambling is an affordable option is fraught with the terrible risk of indebtedness to bookmakers ready to rig the odds criminally.
The warning from today's story is that under current regulations – and supervision – it is too easy for such deals to be made.
For the Premiership, buoyed by its huge television income, there must be the sobering thought that if you pour so much money into a sport, one utterly dependent on the good faith and the honesty of all its participants, you are releasing forces of greed that in certain circumstances may be impossible to contain. The cost? Potentially the basic integrity of the sport.
That is the spectre offered by the addiction specialists who identify the highest level of professional sport in this country as the most fertile breeding ground. Yesterday they were quick to point out their belief that the man who wrote off his debts in such a desperate way was far from an isolated case of someone whose life had become a nightmare.
When "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, star of the blackened White Sox team went to court, it was claimed that a street urchin cried out, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
Now English football must consider, with some urgency, the risk of hearing such a lament.
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