As another Non-League player break the FA’s gambling laws, I ask should they do more to educate players.
After a long investigation, yesterday the FA found that a number of players from Ashton United’s 2014/15 squad had breached betting regulations. Of the players who had been found guilty, only Martin Pilkington has been named so far. Pilkington has been handed a four year suspension from all football and football related activity, a punishment which seems rather harsh for someone plying their trade in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League.
In the summer of 2014, the FA introduced new rules on betting. For players in Steps 1-4 a complete ban on betting was brought in, meaning they couldn’t place any money directly or indirectly (giving advice to others) on any football match or competition anywhere in the world. For those in Step 5 and below, players were banned from betting on a match or competition they were involved in that season, which they could influence or any football matter relating to the league they play in. Quite simple rules really. Essentially, if you play football don’t bet on football. It’s not the hardest rule to follow. But despite the simplicity of the new laws a number of players have found themselves on the wrong side of the regulations.
The most famous case is that of Lewis Smith, who last season was handed a ridiculously large fine (£23k) for betting, an amount that unless he’d won seriously big I don’t know how he’d have been able to pay it. In February this year it was reported that three players from Mickleover Sports, Worcester City and Hyde United were charged after they failed to immediately report an approach by a third party to influence a game. It has also been reported in The Non League Paper that an end of season game from the National League North between Stalybridge and Boston is being investigated due to a high level of betting interest, suggesting betting irregularities. There are other stories out there, and no doubt over the coming years there will be more players being punished for breaking the rules.
The question is; why if the rules are so simple are players breaking them? We’re not talking about experienced criminal minds here, who spend their time coming up with intricate ways to out fox the FA so they can clean up at the bookies. These are non-league footballers, part timers who play the game simply because they love it and hold on to the hope that one day they’ll play professionally. The answer can be found in Pilkington’s Twitter feed. Yesterday, he was very open on his account, answering most questions put to him in a very honest and honourable way. He didn’t hide, instead he alluded to the lack of education and help saying, “I signed a form which I didn’t really read about gambling and nothing was solidly made aware of the consequence.” The form he’s talking about was about the new betting rules. So ok he didn’t read the small print, and made a school-boy error. But if that was the only information the players were given, is it any wonder Pilkington and others have got themselves in trouble.
When the FA introduced the regulations, without doubt it was to stop the big betting syndicates from ruining the game. No one can argue that the rules aren’t a good thing. But when it comes to the non-league the FA should’ve spent time educating players. For the most part, these are just normal lads. They’re not pampered like their Premier League colleagues, the majority have normal jobs and normal lives. In this day and age, part of a normal life is putting a bet on with mates. We all do it without really realising that potentially we’re addicted to it. That buzz you get from winning is unrivalled. It’s no different to the players, except instead of sitting in the pub deciding what to do they do it in the changing room. They’d been doing it for years, so to suddenly stop at the start of the 2014/15 season would have been difficult. More should’ve been done to highlight the new rules, to make it clear what they stood to lose if they didn’t change their habits. Then at the same time, consideration should’ve been given that some might actually be addicted to betting and need serious help.
There are some incredible rumours flying around about Premier League stars addicted to betting with massive gambling debts. These players want for nothing and having it all handed on a plate. When a club identifies there’s a problem with any aspect of that players life, they fix it. Help is handed on a plate. Those in non-league don’t have that luxury. They’re on their own essentially. Players have suggested before that there is a betting culture in non-league, so the FA should have addressed it. They should’ve offered help to the players, both in understanding the new laws and with betting addiction. Simply giving a form to sign is not enough when the punishment is as harsh as a £23k fine or a four year ban.
Martin Pilkington is hoping that other non-league players will learn from his story and punishment. He broke the rules and is being punished. He believes he has been, “thrown out in the trash” by the FA, given no help and just punished for his addiction/habit. He broke the rules in a big way, he bet against his own side. Justifying it by saying on his Twitter feed “I edged my bets, if it was a tough game, if we got beat I won money if we won we won buzzing, it wasn’t about money”. He knows what he did was wrong but at the time it was natural, he’d always done it and it never affected his performance. I hope others learn from his mistake, I also hope the FA take note that they have a responsibility to teach and help all those in football, not just the elite and commercially viable.