Ed Warner: Football should offer players amnesty in wake of Ivan Toney betting ban
This week Ed Warner examines what Ivan Toney’s betting ban means for football, the eye-watering cost of tickets for the Paris 2024 Olympics, and a nuanced take on the trans debate in sport.
If you stick a betting company logo on a young man’s shirt, beam his image around the world for 90 minutes every week and prop up the media coverage for his sport with a welter of gambling ads, then be prepared to shoulder your share of the blame if he can’t resist the temptation to break the rules and have a flutter himself.
Whichever side of the gambling debate you sit on, you can still view Ivan Toney’s eight-month ban from football as excessive.
Brentford FC’s owner, Matthew Benham, made his fortune in trading sporting odds. He has rightly been lauded for doing things differently – on and off the pitch – in building a community-focused club. His team even retained its kit from last season to this, a rarity in an era of rotating temptation for kids wanting to mirror their idols, and a relief for their parents’ wallets.
Young Bees fans can’t exactly replicate the Premier League look however, as Brentford sport Hollywoodbets as their front-of-shirt sponsor. The South African betting company was said by the club to be aiming to bring “a personalised entertainment experience to its international customers” when the shirt deal was struck two years ago. How’s that going now? Just ask the kids to look away, as per the regulations.
We don’t yet know what matches Toney bet on in his 232 agreed breaches of the non-gambling rules between 2017 and 2021. Were they games he participated in, or in competitions his teams played in? Could they have been contests he had special insight into through his network of contacts in football?
Or were they simply matches he put his feet up to watch while relaxing at home – midweek European footy or international fixtures, perhaps? Or like Kieran Trippier and Daniel Sturridge before him, was “inside information” such as player transfers at stake?
Context will be all in judging the severity of the punishment dished out by the independent commission on behalf of the Football Association. If the Brentford striker was betting on matches he played in then, for me, eight months wouldn’t be long enough.
But if at least some of the education given by Toney’s nine professional clubs sunk in, and he is guilty of simply behaving like any fan who adds financial jeopardy to their experience of a game on TV, then preventing him training with his club until mid-September carries more than a hint of vindictiveness. Do we need him to be a pariah?
When the commission publishes its findings, and depending on the facts, Toney would do well to consider a statement such as that made by Joey Barton on his own 18-month ban back in 2017. In it he called out the FA for football’s dependence on the gambling industry’s money. It is worth reading in full.
“I am not alone in football in having a problem with gambling,” wrote Barton. “I grew up in an environment where betting was and still is part of the culture. From as early as I can remember my family let me have my own pools coupon, and older members of the family would place bets for me on big races like the Grand National.
“To this day, I rarely compete at anything without there being something at stake. Whether that’s a round of golf with friends for a few pounds, or a game of darts in the training ground for who makes the tea, I love competing. I love winning. I am also addicted to that.”
Hands up, who hasn’t put a few quid on a horse or two in the Grand National for their kids? Barton had his ban reduced by five months on appeal.
A couple of decades ago, I was CEO of a group that included a financial spread betting business. A pair of clients, a married couple, featured in a Sunday newspaper article trumpeting the million pounds they had made on our trading platform. Great publicity for the firm.
Not much more than a year later we were embroiled in litigation with them after they had lost all of that and much more. No headlines this time, but a valuable human insight into the parallel arguments about availability, promotion and control that swirl around sports betting.
It’s easy to fix a tiny element of sports that break down into fragments of action. Cricket or tennis are obvious examples. A dot ball or a double fault. The prevalence of such “spot fixing” is unknown. Are we only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it is revealed, usually by suspicious betting patterns rather than by direct observation of action on the field of play?
Outcomes in football, a fluid game involving 22 on-pitch players, are by contrast much harder to corrupt. Did Toney wilfully seek to influence the outcome of matches? Or is he simply as addicted to betting as Barton claimed to be? Has he foolishly fallen victim to football’s financial compact with the gambling industry? Place your bet.
Solutions? There is already a trend towards greater restrictions on football’s relationship with the gambling industry. This process needs to be accelerated and the controls screwed even tighter. Outright exclusions are unrealistic, and wouldn’t square with a generally libertarian attitude to betting across society.
And what of footballers themselves? It would probably be beyond the reserves of courage and imagination at the FA, but an amnesty on all previous betting by players – provided they declared any history confidentially to the authorities – would enable a reset of the education programme across the game free of fear of any reprisals, and enable those with a gambling problem to find the help that Barton obviously needed. He won’t be alone.
Walk on by
The strangest headhunter call I had was a couple of years back. A leading search firm was looking for a chair for a new organisation being set up to tackle the harm caused by gambling addiction.
Turned out its principal funding source was the betting industry itself. A different variety of sports washing. Not for me, thanks.
Let them eat cake
A mate got lucky in the draw to buy Paris 2024 Olympics tickets, so I’m now long of a pair for a couple of nights of athletics – at eye-watering cost.
Prices are very similar to those for London 2012 if you adjust for inflation. The big difference is that whereas London had a fair spread of tickets across all price bands for all sports, one look at the Paris venue maps shows the vast majority are in the highest brackets (see Stade de France athletics detail above).
No wonder the locals are revolting. But the laws of supply and demand apply, so still expect all bar a few football group stage matches and a chunk of hospitality places to sell out.
Paralympian Stef Reid has entered the debate about transgender athletes with a nuanced article in the Telegraph.
I’m taken by a comparison she draws with German amputee long jumper Marcus Rehm who lost his challenge to be allowed to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Taking off on his prosthetic leg, Rehm can jump distances that would rank him amongst the best able-bodied athletes.
Reid, a leg amputee long jumper herself, points out that Rehm was asked to prove he had no unfair advantage. An inconclusive outcome from analysis of the data was sufficient to bar him from able-bodied competition. She wonders, reasonably to my way of thinking, why the same onus to prove no unfair advantage from male puberty is not placed on transgender athletes.
World Athletics has decided to exclude trans athletes. Other sports are still tying themselves in knots over the issue. The International Olympic Committee, as so often, is leading from the back.
You can read Reid here. And form your own unscientific view of Rehm’s ‘advantage’ by watching him jump 8.66m in this video.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com