Addiction: Gambling (recovery) the last taboo?

It was great to read the recent article describing gambling addiction as “football’s last taboo”. I worked for Sporting Chance Clinic and supported some of the players named in the article, and many others too. From this experience, I believe that this problem is not isolated within football in the UK, but is just as prevalent within the NRL, ARU and other Australian sports. 

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Too often the value of the gambling debate focuses on financial losses and stories of bankruptcy, as if this is the ultimate consequence. The real impact manifests in broken families, abandoned and neglected children, mental and physical health issues and suicide. Within the context of professional sport it manifests as unfulfilled potential, lost careers and match fixing. For every high profile case that we read, there are many more ‘fallen legends’ and ‘next bright stars’ suffering in silence and falling through the cracks.

 

I am reminded of a case that I worked with in the UK. The player was twenty years old, playing for a Premier League club and making Champion’s League appearances. He was touted as a major talent and future star of the game. A drop in performance level led to concerns for player welfare and he came into our care for “depression”. Further assessment identified a significant gambling addiction, which had been normalised and to some extent ‘enabled’ within the football culture. This player had experienced developmental trauma through the divorce of his parents and death of a close uncle. These experiences coincided with moving out of home and local area as an adolescent to pursue his boyhood dream and career.

During this time he was unable to resolve emotional issues of grief and loss or find appropriate support to process the stress of such a significant transitional phase.

“He felt intense pressure to perform and became isolated in the ‘boys don’t cry’ macho environment and was too scared to show weakness and ask for help”

He described the early relief and fun he found in gambling and the boost of self-esteem he received from winning. He bonded with senior players and developed an identity as a gambler and womaniser as well as ‘top young player’. Like so many players I’ve worked with he did not have the emotional maturity to cope with the realities of professional life. In gambling terms he couldn’t consolidate the inevitable losses and so the cycle of winning, losing and ‘chasing’ began. When he was dropped from the team or injured his gambling increased. He became desperate and resorted to lying, stealing and continuing to bet despite the negative consequences to his relationships and career.

 

Professional footballers who present with gambling addiction often have special talents that separate them from their peers. They are the ‘playmaker’ or creative talent employed on the field to ‘make something from nothing’ and take a ‘risk’ to win a match with audacious skill. Pathological gambling is not about money, but more a brain process related to risk and reward.

“Certain players seem hardwired to behave this way and when the thrill of playing is removed and boredom sets in, gambling offers the excitement of risk and reward. Furthermore, with restrictions often placed on alcohol and drug consumption during the season gambling can seem the more harmless vice”

In professional sport, ‘too much time’ and ‘too much money’ are often identified as being the major causes to the issue. Whilst I agree that these present certain risk factors the issue is more complex and runs deeper within the individual and the culture of the sport itself. Gambling addicts generally present with developmental trauma and a family history of addiction and other mental health issues. Despite being outwardly successful as players they struggle to maintain healthy levels of self-esteem. To defend themselves (and protect the addictive behaviour) denial, dishonesty and manipulation are the common adaptions. Co-occurring mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are common, as are attention issues, ADHD and compulsive sexual behaviour. Undiagnosed and untreated these issues and disorders have the capacity to progress and devastate personal lives, careers and the lives of those closest to them.

 

Every time a high-profile person speaks up and shares their story stigma is shifted and others are encouraged to to reach out for help. This represents great progress. However, we must also explore the taboos and stigma that block access to treatment, therapy and abstinence based recovery.

“Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute have done a phenomenal amount of work to raise awareness and lower stigma around depression and anxiety. We’ve come along way, but professional sport and society in general needs to do more in relation to addiction”

 

Finding Recovery is a positive thing and addiction needs to be viewed as a health issue, not as a matter of morality. The players who have been able to transform their lives and careers have learnt to identify and process feelings of grief, guilt and shame. The 12-step abstinence approach encourages connection to a set of values and principles that guide the addicted person to a space of humility and willingness to make amends. Rather than being a ‘failure’ recovery is one of life’s great successes whereby people generate forgiveness and healing in their lives.

 

The gift for recovering addicts is when they can use their most difficult experiences to help others with the spirit of altruism. Working with the gambling addict in isolation is also limited. It is important that family members, agents and other stake-holders are educated and understand the role that they might play in ‘enabling’ addictive patterns to develop and progress. Early intervention and preventative education are vitally important as we move forward to address the issues.

The player I mentioned earlier is currently gambling and active in his addiction, journeying through the lower levels of the game, signing short contracts, generating signing-on fees to cover gambling debts and maintain the addictive pattern. He has supervised visits with his children and will never reach the professional heights his talent deserved. It’s unfortunately a common and sad story. For other players however, a commitment to recovery has led to the regaining of professional careers, rebuilt reputations, family relationships and financial and emotional health.

 

Overcoming taboo and having the conversation about problem gambling is important, but the conversation about recovery, treatment and the solution is essential.

 

Chris Mordue

South Pacific Private offers an integrated treatment approach for gambling, other addictions, and mood disorders. We work from a trauma informed perspective, helping clients to understand their history; exploring where and how the parental attachment may have been disrupted. The group and community setting allows clients to break through the subconscious and conscious defence mechanisms, as well as shining a light on cognitive distortions and behavioural adaptions that maintain the addictive pattern. Barriers of denial and ambivalence need to be addressed, as well as establishing motivation and willingness to make changes.