Matthew Etherington Stoke City

Stoke City player Matthew Etherington, who says his addiction to gambling made him socially withdrawn. A new study says athletes may be more prone to be problem gamblers. (Image: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images)

Problem gamblers are more represented among top level athletes in the UK, a fact which could be a hidden epidemic of alarming proportions. That’s according to a new study that’s based on confidential interviews with 350 British soccer players and cricketers.

The research, which was carried out by social research experts NatGen on behalf of the Professional Players Federation, the umbrella body for players’ unions, spoke to 170 professional footballers from the English Premier League down and 176 pro cricketers, from international level down, and found that the frequency of problem gamblers among the group was slightly over three times higher than that of young in the general population.

Of the total sample size, 6.1 percent were deemed to be problem gamblers, while a further 12 percent were considered to be “at risk.” If the sample size is truly representative of all top level athletes, then, when the data is extrapolated, the study suggests that around 200 pro soccer players and cricketers have serious problems, and 440 on top of that are “at risk of gambling problems and [have] patterns of not seeking help.”

Nature or Nurture?

“This research shows there is a significantly higher rate of gambling problems among professional sports people than the wider population,” said Research Director at NatCen Heather Wardle. “It is interesting to question why this might be. Is it due to a betting culture? Is it something about athletes’ personalities or perhaps a combination of these two?”

It’s certainly a question sports governing bodies should be asking themselves, particularly as it’s believed that players with gambling problems are more susceptible to match-fixing approaches.

The English Football Association (FA) announced that from the 2014/15 season all players in English soccer would be banned from betting, not only on competitions in which their team is involved, as was previously the case, but from all football matches anywhere in the world. Last year Spurs and England winger Andros Townsend and Norwich striker Cameron Jerome were both fined by the FA for breaching its gambling regulations.

Duty of Care

“There is an urgent need to break down the stigma attached to problem gambling in sport. Sportsmen are a clear ‘at risk’ group and the whole of professional sport has a duty of care to these young men,” says Brendon Batson, chairman of the Professional Players’ Federation. “We all need to work together to expand and improve the good practice that exists on education and treatment for problem gambling.”

Various EPL soccer players have come clean in the past about their betting habits, including Newcastle forward Michael Chopra, who has admitted to blowing millions on gambling and was also charged with race manipulations by the British Horseracing Authority. Stoke’s Matthew Etherington meanwhile confessed to losing £1.5 million on greyhounds, horses and poker, and said his gambling addiction made him socially withdrawn.

“There are several issues here,’ says General Secretary of the PFF Simon Taylor. “There is a duty of care to the players. You also want players playing well so you need to look after them. You need effective education, and treatment in place for those who need it and can ask for help … Sport needs to look at the culture it is setting up around young players.”