ON Monday, the media were invited to a plush Glasgow hotel for the launch of an initiative from the Scottish Premiership’s title sponsor, Ladbrokes, to promote responsible gambling.

Present, were the SPFL’s chief executive, Neil Doncaster, and former problem gambler and ex-Celtic hero, John Hartson.

The message was sound enough and the words seemed sincere. Tools had been launched to help people whose gambling was getting out of control, there was a website and helpline too. All very commendable, but isn’t the fact that the league’s main sponsor felt the need to make a song and dance about protecting people from the very business they rake in millions of pounds a year from rather a concern?

Like thousands of others throughout the country, I like a bet. A coupon or two of a weekend doesn’t do any harm and is all part of the culture of the game. The cherry on the icing.

For a growing number of people though, it becomes so much more than that. Hartson himself admits he avoids situations that would tempt him into a flutter after hitting rock bottom seven years ago. For him, that means not going to the races, for example, but if you are a Scottish football fan, then how are you to avoid the presence of the bookies?

It doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine someone who is a problem gambler being tempted into having a bet by simply watching a Scottish football match. Alongside Ladbrokes, we have Betfred sponsoring the League Cup and William Hill lending their name to the Scottish Cup. In the Premiership, Rangers, Celtic, Hibernian and Motherwell have a betting firm as their main shirt sponsors.

Mark Etches, chief executive of GambleAware, spoke out on the matter when it was revealed that 60% of English clubs this season have betting sponsorship on the front of their jerseys, believing the relationship between the sport and gambling, particularly how football is being used to normalise betting, was a matter of huge concern.

The bookies know that they are targeting a prime audience and will plough money into the game north of the border and all over the world as a result, because the safest bet in the world is a handsome return from punters.

It used to be alcohol that dominated the Scottish football landscape, and while there is still the odd presence of the bevvy on the backs of shirts for example, the bookies have well and truly cornered the market since the days of the Bell’s Premier Division, the Tennent’s Scottish Cup and the Skol Cup.

It is no surprise that Scotland is a market that would interest them. In September, the country was revealed to be the gambling capital of Britain, with over 45,000 people classified as problem gamblers. That is just one percent of those who gamble, but still relatively high when compared to the 0.7 percent across the rest of Britain.

It is doubtful that the government would take matters into their own hands and outlaw advertising by gambling firms in sport in the same way that tobacco advertising has been banished. But does Scottish football as the national sport have a moral duty to protect supporters, or is it acceptable to hold our noses and take cash from the bookies if they take part in initiatives that go some way to limiting the damage their omniscient presence could do? After all, McDonald’s have been pouring money into Scottish football at grassroots level for years for the right to advertise fast food to our kids. Does the bigger picture justify any collateral damage?

The organisation that runs women’s football in Scotland, the SWF, has already rejected offers from betting companies. The FA in England the GAA in Ireland are other notable examples of governing bodies that have taken a stand and refused to accept sponsorship deals from gambling firms. But here, in the words of SPFL chief executive Doncaster on Monday, is the cold reality he faces.

“I think the FA are in a wholly different position financially than us north of the border,” Doncaster said

“Integrity is an important part of Scottish football, but equally we have to recognise that the investment partners we have and the Scottish FA have.”

In other words, to paraphrase, if you don’t like our principles, but have cash, then we have others. Scottish football, it seems, just can’t afford to be picky.

AND ANOTHER THING

SO, Matt Ritchie is the latest player to indicate that he doesn’t want to be selected for Scotland ‘for the foreseeable future’. Leaving aside the fact that were it not for an injury crisis, he wouldn’t have been asked at all this week, it is disappointing only in the sense that it is speaking to a trend of players picking and choosing when they can be bothered representing their country.

In this case, unless there is a personal issue we don’t know about, it is hardly a seismic shock. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I never sensed that Ritchie’s heart was ever really in it.

Unlike some, he won’t be missed.

HeraldScotland | Sport

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